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Lessons in independence

Published March 12. 2016 09:00AM

I struggle with trying to give my children an appropriate amount of independence on a daily basis. Based on news stories about parents who are arrested for letting their 9-year-olds play in a public park unsupervised and helicopter parents who are taking on their kids’ college professors over grades, I’m not alone.

Beyond daily chores, like emptying the dishwasher, and weekly chores, like cleaning their rooms, I’ve tried to gradually add small tasks that will hopefully ensure their survival in the future. First up, feeding themselves. All three of them help me in the kitchen regularly, so I turned them loose on the only meal everyone in the family can agree isn’t awful: pasta and sauce. I parked myself in the breakfast nook with a magazine and let them have at it.

I was impressed at the level of teamwork that the three of them managed to pull off. G and E willingly took orders from A, the only one who could read directions. Even though they’ve seen me boil noodles in the stock pot on a weekly basis, there was still some intelligent debate as to whether or not that was the right pot to use. At the same time, they were following my strict kitchen rule of gathering all ingredients and tools before starting.

They cooperated to divide up tasks. Everything was going swimmingly. I was patting myself on the back for teaching them well in the kitchen and breathing a sigh of relief that when push came to shove, my children could actually have each other’s backs and not starve.

Then, everything suddenly got quiet. Any parent knows that’s dangerous.

I could hear them whispering furiously to each other. I hadn’t heard a crash and I didn’t smell anything burning, so I tried to keep my head down and let them figure it out. More furious whispering, now accompanied by a little bit of banging and shuffling things around the stove.

Finally, a little voice: “Mom? Um … we don’t know how to turn on the stove.”

Sure, they knew where the knobs were, and they could reach them. They’d seen me do it a thousand times, but they didn’t realize that there was a child safety feature which required a slight pressure in on the knob before it was turned. I was happy to see that they had at least tried to figure it out but stopped short of possibly torching the kitchen. After that little hiccup, they went diligently back to work and a little while later we all sat down to eat.

It made me think of the first time my parents turned me loose to do a grown-up job. My dad sent me into the IGA to buy a loaf of bread. My dad worked middle shift at the time, so I had to be little enough to be home with him during the day. I was 4, maybe 5? I was familiar with the bright yellow wrapper of the bread that we always bought, and my dad told me that it would be 55 cents, and he gave me TWO quarters and a nickel to pay for it. I’d been in the store enough times to know exactly where the bread shelf was.

I remember getting out of the car and walking in to the store, feeling so proud that I was entrusted with such an important job. And then I spent what seemed like hours, looking at every single loaf of bread in the store. There wasn’t a single one that had 55 cents on it. I know, because I must have looked at every single one of them 3 times. I had very specific directions. Get a loaf of bread with a yellow wrapper that had two fives on it.

Finally, I went up to the lady at the register and told her what I was looking for. She had a little chuckle, got me the loaf of bread, and told me to tell my dad that bread prices had gone up 3 cents! When I got out to the car, my dad gave me the change and sent me back in to cover my debt. I learned two very valuable lessons that day: first of all, if you’ve given it your best shot, it’s OK to ask for help, and two, even though my dad had my back, I still had to step up to the plate and take care of my own business.

I’m not sure if their adventure in spaghetti was enough to teach my kids those lessons, but it’s up to me to create some more situations so that they do.

Liz Pinkey is a contributing writer to the Times News. Her column appears weekly in our Saturday feature section.

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