How Second Chances Free Us Up for Real Learning

Today my nine-year-old decided to teach herself how to make millefeuille. Gosh, that’s complicated, I hear you say. Can she do it? I believe she can. She is a brilliant and inspired cook. I don’t know another nine-year-old who can crack an egg with one hand. Her knife skills are formidable, and she has no trouble with weights and measures. Today she gave my friend, a very accomplished cook herself, tips on how to make crème patisiere. She’s made fudge, croissants, pain au chocolat, risotto, Bolognese sauce, homemade tomato soup, omelettes, Vietnamese spring rolls, cakes, and cookies, all with confidence and success. Reading a recipe written for children, when she comes to the part that says, “Ask an adult to do this for you,” she literally says, “Pshaw."

And yet some of her kitchen failures have been so spectacularly disastrous, wasteful, and expensive as to literally make me claw at my face in frustration. How many difficult recipes has she tried, only for them to end in disaster? Scrambled pancakes, wet and sloppy. Thin, overly-chewy macaroons that had so much food dye added that when I said through my stuck-together teeth, “Uh, they’re a little chewy, honey, but tasty,” I think I looked like the Incredible Hulk. When it comes to following recipes, she considers them “guidelines” only, and commonly shrugs her shoulders and substitutes something, anything, so long as it’s a similar color. Often she misses out complete steps or several key ingredients. We laugh (and tear our hair out) because she specializes in the “just throw it all in and hope for the best” approach.

Countless times I have talked to her about the importance of reading the method through several times before you begin, asking for clarification if you’re confused or unsure, making sure you have the right ingredients before you begin…. She nods sweetly, her one dimpled cheek melting my heart, and says, “I’m sorry about all those other times, mummy. I’ll do what you say this time.” Fast forward two hours and I’m back to raising my hands to the heavens and chucking the latest experiment into the compost bin.

And yet I continue to let her try. Although in moments of despair I have threatened to ban her from the kitchen, her interest is so strong and her enthusiasm so infectious (and that dimple so darn convincing), I let her have a go again and again.

I believe in second chances. Not just second chances, but many chances.

Gradually, I have learned that I need to sit down with her and talk over the recipe in minute detail, and she is learning that listening to me during this discussion can avert disaster. Gradually, I have learned that partway through I need to go into the kitchen on false pretense and cast an eye over her progress, ask how it’s going, etc. Gradually, I am learning how to give support and suggestions without backing her into a corner or stepping on her toes. I’m not just letting her have a free-for-all in the kitchen; I realise that I need to step up to the challenge to help her make it a success. Through all of these mistakes, she is becoming a better cook, and I am becoming a better mentor.

I believe in second chances. Not just second chances, but many chances. Mainstream society (embodied by a highly annoying voice in my head) might criticise me:

“What message are you sending in letting her do it again and again? She’s walking all over you.”

“She’ll never learn if you keep giving in to her.”

“She’s got you wrapped around her little finger.” (or, dimple)

“You’re a sucker!”

Sigh. I work hard to silence that criticisizing voice. To do so, I remind myself of the message I am truly sending. I’m letting her know that my trust isn’t easily lost. I’m communicating that even when she makes mistakes, I will stand by her and let her try again. I’m telling her that I’m confident she will eventually learn all that she wants to learn about cooking. By letting her have another try, I hope she will learn about cooking, but more importantly, that she will learn that no matter what, I will give her another chance. I will always wager my chips on her hand. We forgive, we learn lessons, we move on. If that makes me a sucker, then that’s me. But actually, I think it makes me a mother.