TTT- Tuesday’s Tasty Tip with Chef David Hall

Self-esteem, Confidence and Independence – The Kitchen Training Ground

If you were to ask someone who knows me best, he or she would tell you I have strong opinions regarding the bunk taught to our children in schools regarding self-esteem. I take exception to the incredibly lame notion that being unique is all you need to have a healthy self-esteem. “Oh! You’re so special because there is only one person like you in the entire world! Oooh, oooh oooh!” While children are impressionable and may initially buy into this mental midget way of thinking when they are three to seven years old, it is only a matter of time before the house of cards supporting these shallow notions comes crashing down when the real world says otherwise. The result is often crippling disappointment when our children discover uniqueness is not enough to succeed in this world.

Further, some schools and kids’ programs have eliminated scoring of games so there are no losers and hence no winners. Some teachers have been asked to grade papers with multiple colored pens so students will not feel so bad if their papers are heavily marked with red ink. This nonsense is sometimes driven by parents who want to spare their children of any negativity, as noted in Linda Orlando’s article, “The Ink That Teachers Use to Grade Papers has Parents Seeing Red.” How does this small-minded shortsighted thinking benefit our youth, develop self-esteem and prepare them for the “ups and downs” they WILL experience in life? It simply does not.

The key to developing healthy SELF-esteem is NOT empty praise, removing competition, grading with silly colors and eliminating criticism and negativity for our children’s learning experience. The key to building healthy SELF-esteem (or self-image) is to act in SELFLESS ways. Stated another way, self-esteem is founded in selflessness, not selfishness. This is true for all ages, whether child or adult. This ironic truth is somewhat of an oxymoron. In order to build a healthy view of one’s self, one must focus outwardly for realistic validation. We typically receive positive healthy feedback when we bless or benefit others. When parents and teachers provide opportunities to children to help or benefit others, they create opportunities for external positive validation by those in a position of respect and authority. These validations are critical to developing an accurate view of one’s self or a healthy self-esteem (or self-image).

While positive feedback is critical for kids’ future decision-making, constructive negative feedback delivered in an honest, caring, and direct manner is also critical for future decision-making. Many parents and teachers expend great effort in avoiding the responsibility of being honest, real and straight with those in their charge, hence the colored pens and elimination of scoring. Denying our children of the honesty they need from us is essentially stealing from them. I do not do this to students in my classes – child or adult. They receive honest and direct feedback (positive and negative) from me as well as other peer-students in classes. In fact, children often accept negative reinforcement from their peers more readily than from their parents (possibly, because it is both honest and direct, though still hard to take). I utilize peer adjudication as much as possible for this reason.

Another critical component of growing up and building a healthy self-image is confidence. Merriam-Webster defines confidence as:
a feeling of one’s powers or reliance on one’s circumstances
faith or belief that one will act in a right, proper, or effective way
the quality or state of being certain : certitude .

Sadly, too many parents lack the wisdom of knowing the difference between encouragement and support vs. taking over and criticism. This undermines confidence. If you want to destroy a child’s confidence, micromanage, hover or be perfectionist. The alternative, teach your children to “fly” on their own, with you in the background as an observer. They will amaze you – if given the chance. As parents and teachers, we must set our children up for success and catch them doing things right, not wrong. Once a child has a well-developed sense of confidence, they will continue to build on that confidence on their own given responsible parenting/teaching and the opportunity to do so. Their confidence in themselves serves as a foundation for a healthy self-image.

Independence is vital to children taking risks, and risk taking is critical to building confidence. Those children who have had parents hovering about their little 13-year-old babies rarely take risks without their parents OK letting them know there is little or no risk involved. These children are easy to spot because they won’t try anything new without copious amount of urging, not to mention approval from mommy or daddy. I am not suggesting you allow your small child to walk to the edge of Mather Point at the Grand Canyon alone, or to try to wield a 10” chef’s knife without proper training. However, I do suggest you learn what typical children are capable of at various ages and let them try a few things ON THEIR OWN. At some point in time, you must let go of the bicycle fender and let them ride on their own, away from you. Taking reasonable risks is essential to a child’s self-confidence and developing an independent mindset.

Our goal as parents and teachers should be to teach our children to be a committee of one. What this means is, it is our job to teach our children to make their own responsible choices and it’s OK to be different or unique. This is vital for children at school who are on a special needs diet. Children can be cruel (and bully others), especially when a child is trying to fit in with their peers. When all the other kids are wolfing down pepperoni pizza and your child brings out his un-cool sack lunch, things can get tough for them if they lack confidence and independence. When your child boldly can say to their peers, “Can you make a pizza, or the beef roulade I brought? Do you even know what a roulade is? I don’t need to buy my lunch because I know how to make my own lunch,” you know you have succeeded in grooming a self-sufficient child who will not allow others to belittle him or her because they don’t follow the crowd and do as they do. Teaching a child to be a committee of one is no small task, but one for which all parents and teachers should strive.

So how does all this relate to kids in the kitchen?

Self-esteem, confidence and independence feed each other. As parents and teachers (and parents are teachers whether they want to be or not), we have a responsibility to our children to provide them with opportunities for success, and when they fail or stumble when trying to do something honorable for others, to be there in the background encouraging them to try again, but not take over. Allow children the freedom to take appropriate risks, develop self-esteem and build confidence on their own, but with your encourage and measured support. A great starting place is the kitchen. The kitchen is a blank palate for success. All it takes is a few ingredients – spices, stock, meat and vegetables mixed with generous portions of encouragement and letting go of them from time to time.

The kitchen is an ideal arena for children to explore not only their world, but also themselves. As a chef/instructor, I have the wonderful opportunity to teach youth how to cook in my Kid’s Kulinary Boot Kamps. I regularly witness the joy and excitement both children and parents have when kids cook for their families and loved ones. I routinely see parents laud genuine praise on their children for the WORK their child children do in the kitchen. Being genuine in praise and criticism is critical to providing honest feedback to our children. Kids are not stupid – at 10 to 13 years old, they see through empty bogus praise in a heartbeat. They (children) are hungry for authenticity. They find it in my kitchen, and they should in yours too.

Children need to believe in themselves and their abilities. They must understand both their limits and limitlessness. The kitchen is an ideal place for them to develop not only confidence, but self-sufficiency and independence as well. Knowing that they can perform a task more than once with an expected outcome does wonders for enabling them to take their next steps without mom or dad holding their hand or hovering about them. Once a child can walk on his or her own, a new independence is developed.

In the camps, I do not teach my kids simple cookie and cupcake recipes; I teach them culinary theory. This provides them with challenges and opportunities to “succeed” or “fail.” Both are essential to their development into young adults. In the kitchen, kids will experience the range of the “joy of victory” when something they cook is simply amazing, as well as “the agony of defeat” when instead of adding a ¼ teaspoon of salt, they add ¼ cup of salt to a dish. While children usually revel in the praise, they will also learn how to deal with occasional disappointment in responsible ways if not deprived of the opportunity.

Fortunately, most of the time my students are successful at what they attempt, if not, that’s OK too, they just have to try it again – it’s all part of learning and growing up, while having fun along the way.

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