Jamie asked me to write a bit, in the Sane Mom Revolution tradition, about training toddlers to use real knives. Jamie was thinking about this post from when my 9-y-o daughter was about three and a half, which featured this shot:
In that picture, my daughter is using a serrated knife with a rounded tip to strip collard leaves off the stems for me.
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When I was a young mother with my first child and all my theories were new and untested, I was very fond of a book called The Continuum Concept, by Jean Liedloff.
(You thought attachment parenting was crunchy? Meet something crunchier.)
I foresee someone raising their eyebrows that a person like me would find something to like in TCC, a book which has been roundly criticized by a large number of people across the spectrum of parenting philosophies and social positions, for a number of reasons. I'm still fond of it. If you should decide to pick it up, my advice is to consider it a philosophical memoir rather than a work of scientific anthropology. The key takeaway concept: humans thrive best in an environment which contains those cues which our nature evolved to expect* from its environment.
[*N. B. You can substitute for "evolved to expect" the phrase "was designed by God to expect" if you want, it works just as well.]
That goes for surroundings (sunlight, mother's milk, a certain cycle of seasons of hunger and plenty, earth beneath our feet) as well as social cues from others (language, interaction with siblings, adults with work that can be imitated).
So, Liedloff is writing informal observations of a group of people living in the South American rainforest among whom she resided for a time, and she commented about how the young children are surrounded by real dangers and yet rarely (note: not "never") are seriously injured by them.
One of the most striking [dangerous situations] is the omnipresence of machetes and knives, all razor sharp, and all available to step on, fall against, or play with. Babies, too young to have learned about handles, picked them up by the blades and, as I watched, waved them about in their dimpled fists. They not only did not sever their own fingers or injure themselves at all, but if they were in their mother's arms, they managed to miss hurting her either...
The boys, from the age of about eighteen months, practiced archery with sharp arrows, some enthusiasts carrying their bow and arrows about most of their waking hours. Shooting was not confined to designated places, nor were any "safety rules" in effect. In my two and a half years there I saw only the one arrow wound I have mentioned.
...And there are the rivers, in which ... a child swimming farther out in the current than his strength and ability allow has a good chance of being smashed on the rocks or... branches.... The children who bathe and play in the river every day must gauge their ability accurately under all conditions.
The operative factor seems to be placement of responsibility. The machinery for looking after themselves, in most Western children, is in only partial use, a great deal of the burden having been assumed by adult caretakers.... The continuum [by which Liedloff means our human ability to adapt, with limitations, to our environment] withdraws as much self-guardianship as is being taken over by others. The result is diminished efficiency because no one can be as constantly or as thoroughly alert to anyone's circumstances as he is to his own...
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Mind you, I am not leaving razor-sharp knives and machetes about for my children to step on and for my babies to pick up. This is, fundamentally, because I do not live in an environment where that works, where everyone is used to the omnipresence of razor-sharp knives and machetes and treats them accordingly. I live in an environment where knives are kept out of the way, on a magnetic strip (see photo above) where no one will accidentally step on one or slice their hand by mistake when carelessly reaching for a whisk.
And so I work with my children and knives in a way that makes sense for that environment: the environment where knives come out when it is time to cook, and are put away when the cooking is done.
But I still can use the takeaway here: I prefer my child to take some of the responsibility for keeping herself safe from knife wounds. If I take all of the responsibility, keeping the knives safely locked away -- well, that only works until I make a mistake, or until she enters an environment that I cannot control. If I teach her to use a knife correctly and carefully, and step back so she knows she has to be careful, then she can protect herself even if I forget and leave one lying about.
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I've had the knife shown above since my first child was pretty small. It began life as a combination knife/cheese spreader that came with a picnic set we received as a wedding present. When I wanted it to become a child-sized knife, Mark cut the handle shorter with some power tool or another, and used a Dremel to ever-so-slightly blunt the serrations, which had been quite sharp.
I mention this just to note that the most important thing for starting to teach a small child how to use a knife may well be to choose a "starter knife" that doesn't strike fear into your heart. You're not going to be very confident in your child's ability if, every time he picks it up, you visualize him falling off the stepstool and landing on the point of the knife. Choose a knife that you're going to be comfortable letting your child actually use, holding it with his own two hands.
The non-pointy tip of this knife means I don't worry about death-dealing stab wounds. And that was important for me, personally. YMMV.
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Although the tip is rounded and the serrations have been slightly blunted, the edge of this knife is still sharp. Sharp enough to cut most vegetables, and -- crucially -- sharp enough to cut your fingers, too. Probably not a maiming, stitches-requiring wound (with blunted serrations, you'd have to saw at your thumb a little bit) -- but enough to hurt and bleed and need a Band-Aid.
And that brings me to the next point about teaching kids to use knives. It's good for them find out that careless knife work can hurt them. I don't particularly want to run to the ER, so for early knife work I chose a less-than-razor-sharp knife. But I welcome that first moment when a child tries to cut the zucchini while holding it, instead of having it flat on the board, and --zzzing -- she has a minor, painful cut on her palm. And then while I'm bandaging her up we can talk about why that happened, and how she can prevent it from happening the next time.
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Here are three types of knives that can work:
Top: My child-sized knife, the one my daughter is pictured using in the first photo. Middle: a piece of toddler cutlery from IKEA (not as sharp; will cut butter and zucchini and avocado). Bottom: a spreader (the tip is curved, which makes it less useful for cutting, but is good for learning how to use a knife to spread).
I've also heard good things about the knives that come in a pumpkin-carving set (take note! those might still be on sale somewhere!), the plastic "lettuce knives," and a wooden-handled "crinkle-cutter" like this one.
(Montessori suppliers, like the one at the previous link, often have tools sized for children -- here is a plastic knife that would work for a child, here is a hand drill for woodworking, here is a saw. Although my husband, who does more woodworking than I, prefers to teach children to use a coping saw, and to saw with a miter box.)
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Once the knife is selected, you are mostly teaching children to observe the same knife safety guidelines that the adult cook should observe. Familiarize yourself with these! Articles can be found all over, and some comprehensive cookbooks will include an introduction.
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The next thing to do with small children who are first using knives is to prep them for success. Some things are hard to cut; some things easy. Some things start off hard but get easier after they have been trimmed.
Don't give a toddler a butternut squash or a whole carrot. How about a peeled banana for her snack? How about a stick of cold butter that needs to be added in pieces to the pastry flour? How about a zucchini, halved lengthwise and placed flat side down so it can't roll, and the ends trimmed off?
Later, if the knife is sharp enough, the vegetable can get harder; children will be able to slice a potato, for instance. But keep trimming the vegetables (halving the potato, for example, or cutting the cantaloupe into peeled wedges for her to cube). They may as well not deal with vegetables that will roll until they've really mastered slicing. You're modeling a practice that's good for grownups to use too: mise en place. After a while you can teach how to trim an onion or a zucchini to get it into that no-roll, easy-to-chop form.
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Early on teach them always to put the vegetable on a cutting board, never on the counter or on a plate (a stray stroke down onto the turned-up edge can flip it), and certainly never to hold the vegetable in their other hand. (You may have to refrain from using a paring knife to peel apples in the child's line of sight for a time, or they are sure to copy your apple-in-hand technique.)
At first teach them how to hold the handle of the knife with one hand and place their flat palm on top of the blade, and push down to cut a large, not-too-hard vegetable. (This works with any knife, and the crinkle cutter is particulary good.) With one hand's fingers wrapped around the handle, and the other hand's fingers flat and above the blade, a finger cut just won't happen. Watch, and correct the child if she bends her fingers down, or tries to cut with one hand while repositioning the food with the other hand.
You're not teaching a useless skill here. This flat-hand-on-the-blade technique, with a bit of rocking added to it, is the same one that adults use to mince garlic or dice onions with a chef's knife.
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Advanced knife work does involve putting the fingertips more in harm's way. We do often need to hold food in position with one hand while cutting it with the other. This bit is tricky even for grownups sometimes, but the most fingertip-safe way to hold a vegetable while cutting it is to curl your fingertips under slightly so that the part that protrudes the closest to the blade is part of the knuckle. Yes, you might graze your knuckle, but (unlike a fingertip) you can't actually sever it. And it's a slightly unnatural way to hold a vegetable (until you are used to it), so while you are learning it forces you to be attentive.
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I suppose I would be remiss if I didn't mention that in the workplace, frequent users of sharp knives sometimes use cut-resistant gloves on the non-dominant hand. But I doubt these come in child's sizes, and anyway, I wonder if the awkwardness and loss of sensation might not create more problems than it solves for the ordinary kitchen user.
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All along, the most important thing to teach children who use knives is attentiveness. You should stay close by, not because you need to hover to keep them safe, but because there are many opportunities to teach features of knife safety that they might not think of on their own. Things like:
- Don't climb down from your stool to retrieve a dropped vegetable while your knife is in your hand. Put the knife down on the counter, then climb down.
- Don't let any part of the knife stick out over the edge of the counter when you put it down.
- Don't let any part of a cutting board stick out over the edge of the counter. (If there's a knife on the cutting board, it could be knocked off).
- Don't let the baby climb up onto your stool with you while you're cutting. Call for help and I will take him away.
- Don't gesture with the knife. (NAG, NAG, NAG)
- Don't let people take bits to eat off your cutting board while you are cutting.
- Don't climb down from your stool to put the knife in the sink while your knife is in your hand. Put the knife on the counter, then climb down, then carry the knife to the sink.
- Don't try to watch a screen or read a book while you cut.
Later, these lessons can become more advanced cooking lessons. Time in the kitchen with a child is eventually rewarded -- if nothing else, you may wind up with your own prep cook or even sous-chef. And we all could use one of those.