It's OK to Give Your Child a Knife

credit: Evelyn Lim

Delaying knife use hinders a child's natural development and inhibits curiosity. If a child expresses a desire to try a knife, why not show them how to do it properly?

For my 6-year-old son, the sound of dinner being prepared is magnetic. He comes running into the kitchen and asks to help. He is fascinated by the way in which ordinary ingredients are turned into a meal.

Initially, I showed him how to do easy tasks, such as dumping measured ingredients into a bowl, stirring a pot with a long wooden spoon, greasing pans, and washing dishes, but then he wanted more. We moved on to handling sharper, trickier objects – the cheese grater, vegetable peeler, and paring knife – and learning how to turn on a burner while supervised. So far we’ve had no accidents and he keeps getting better and better at using these tools.

Kids are far more capable than parents often realize, and they are surprisingly astute at gauging risk. They stay focused on the task for long periods of time, pay attention to instructions because they want to do it properly, show tremendous pride at what they’ve accomplished, and are more eager to eat food they’ve helped prepare. It’s a win-win situation since the child feels respected and proud and the parent gets some help.

“This drive to ‘do it myself’ – we’re squashing as a society.”

The problem is, relatively few parents these days are willing to train that sort of independence in their kids from a young age. As Anna Perry, executive director of Montessori schools in the Chicago area, explains: “This drive to ‘do it myself’ – we’re squashing as a society.”

It’s true. Children are rarely considered capable enough or given the opportunity to ‘play’ with adult tools. Most parents voluntarily create dependency, rather than following the child’s natural inclination toward independence, in order to minimize risk. Why do they do this? Anthropologist David Lancy offers an explanation in an article called “Go Ahead, Give Your Toddler A Knife”, written by Sujata Gupta.

“Contemporary parental overprotectiveness is linked to rising incomes and declining family size, factors that have turned children into ‘precious treasures, rather than future helpers’.”

In many parts of the world, children are still given sharp objects such as knives and machetes with which to play and discover their capabilities and limitations. This was common historically, but we’ve moved so far away from that in present-day North America.

I say it’s time to rethink the safety-obsessed approach. A kid who knows how to use a knife safely will be less of a concern to their parents; they will feel comfortable working in the kitchen, and will eventually be able to cook healthy meals from scratch. There’s no reason why our precious treasures can’t be little helpers, too.

I challenge you: Next time your child wants to help in the kitchen, don’t give him all the ‘safe’ tasks to do, but rather take the time to show him how to do a trickier one. The look of pride on his face will make it worth the effort.