When can kids cook without adult help?

Why are we always asking kids to "ask an adult for help?"  PC:  Kelly Sikkema  on  Unsplash

Why are we always asking kids to "ask an adult for help?"

PC: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids and proud recipient of the "World's Worst Mom" award for allowing her then nine-year-old to ride the New York City Subway alone, recently wrote about a 1950s cookbook that did an amazing thing: assumed kids would be using heat and knives whilst cooking. 

Seventy years later, Skenazy argues, cookbooks are not taking kids as seriously. They "get to the good part" (with the knives and the fire), and then take the actual cooking away from kids with the instruction to "ask an adult to..." cut, saut√©, or, more broadly, help. Such instructions, she argues, "treat kids as endangered ninnies rather than young people who can actually do some things without accidentally stabbing an artery or setting themselves on fire." 

Where did that authority-zapping phrase come from? What are the implications, not just for our kitchen helpers but for kids more broadly? 

"Ask an adult to" 

Skenazy's right about the rise of that killjoy phrase. Google's Ngram viewer, which can determine the frequency of a word or phrase from books, shows "ask an adult to..." has increased: 

Frequency of "Ask an adult to help" and "Ask an adult for help" in English books, 1950-2008  Source:  Google NGRAM Viewer

Frequency of "Ask an adult to help" and "Ask an adult for help" in English books, 1950-2008

Source: Google NGRAM Viewer

Around 1950, American English books made infrequent reference to "ask an adult for help" or "ask an adult to help." Around 1975, that started to change. That increase looks enormous on the graph, but check out the y-axis. Those teensy numbers represent the percent of all five-word phrases (5-grams) that are "ask an adult for help" and "ask an adult to help." These phrases still make up a tiny percentage of the overall language. For reference, the 1-gram "the" generally hovers around 5% of all 1-grams.

Still, it's clear that "ask an adult for/to help" rose sharply throughout the 80s and 90s. Although use of the terms appear to be tapering, that may just be a data collection issue (the Ngram viewer provides data through 2008). The rise of this instruction does lend credence to Skenazy's endangered ninnies theory, especially when a Google Books search for "ask an adult to" yields not just kids' cookbooks, but also kids books about crafts, science experiments, Halloween costumes, and art.

Are kids' cookbooks getting worse...

So it's clear that more authors are instructing kids to ask for adult assistance, at least in our published literature held by the libraries whose books were part of the Google Books project. But does this increase represent a changed attitude toward kid chefs? 

It's true that the 1950s My First Cookbook takes kid chefs seriously by offering safety guidance without condescension. It offers the sensible advice to "use a pot holder in each hand when you take hot pans or dishes from the oven. But let's not get too rosy with nostalgia, because it also instructs readers to "ask your mother to teach you how to use the range and light the oven." 

Still, there's not a lot to commend in many modern kids' cookbooks, either. There are lots of reasons to dislike the inexplicably popular Disney Princess Cookbook. On the gender front, it might as well be 1950. Although there's the occasional illustration of a Disney prince eating his partner's cuisine, there are no men in the book. Instead, the recipes are attributed exclusively to the princesses, their spirit animals, a teacup, and a magic lamp. All of this cooking is unfairly bracketed as the work of women and anthropomorphic animals and serveware. [There is one recipe from Merida's triplet siblings, but the recipe requires only the use of a melon-baller.]

Oftentimes, that cooking is out of character for the princesses. I'll concede that Show White did do a lot of the dwarves' cooking, but Ariel? Her ignorance about fork use is a significant plot point. Would Belle be whipping up quiche when there was a whole kitchen of enchanted cookware to do it for her? Isn't Mulan busy fighting a war?

More galling than this association of cooking with femininity is the book's opening instruction is to "Always, always ask a parent for permission. Even young princesses need to check with the queen or king before they use the palace kitchen." 

The readers of the Disney Princess Cookbook aren't really cooking, because cooking is too dangerous. "If you need to use a stove, oven, blender, or mixer for a recipe," the book warns, "make sure to ask an adult to help you." That warning is echoed a few pages later in a two-page "Safety First!" spread that includes three separate reminders to ask adults for help. But that's just the start: there are thirty-seven "ask an adult" reminders in total. The Disney Princess Cookbook appears to promote exactly the kind of helpless dependence that Disney heroines so often rebel against.

Okay, but that's just one out-of-touch kids' cookbook. Do others do it better? 

Right from its title, the Do It Myself Kids' Cookbook promises a different role for kids seeking independence in the kitchen. Its cover, however, contradicts even that promise with a parent-focused guarantee: "Nothing Sharp, Nothing Hot!"

The instructions to grown-ups at the start of Do It Myself are unnecessarily coddling. After recommending that parents buy pre-shredded cheese and carrots in order to cut down on prep time, they add "Of course, the correct amount can always be hand-shredded by the grown-up in charge. Kitchen shredders and/or graters aren't the most kid-friendly utensils. Shaved knuckle, not so fun."

Although many of the no cut/no cook recipes don't require any grown-up prep, some do, including a recipe for Shrimp Tacos with Avocado and Corn asks the grown-up to open and drain a can. Why can't a child use a can opener, or fill a pot with water and turn a stove knob, or--gasp put an egg in that water after it boils? Why, exactly, shouldn't children thaw and drain frozen corn?

Both the Disney Princess Cookbook and the Do It Myself Kids Cookbook create a sort of zero-stakes sanitized cooking experience designed for maximum whimsy and no risk. They're just the recipe for the "endangered ninnies" Skenazy fears today's children are turning into. If you're not actually slicing, chopping, heating, or even serving, are you really cooking? 

...or are readers of kids' cookbooks getting younger?

One explanation for the rise of "ask an adult to..." is that today's parents, relentlessly focused on safety, are depriving their children of the risks and rewards that come with new challenges. It feels like we can close the book on this one: kids' cookbooks--at least some kids' cookbooks--are dumbing it down for their audiences and preventing them from actually cooking. 

Another explanation may be that the readers of modern kid cookbooks really do need help. That's not because kids are suddenly less capable in the kitchen than they were seventy years ago, or because we're obsessively safety-focused, or even because we've grown more litigious, but because the target market for kids' cookbooks is younger. The Disney Princess Cookbook is designed for 6-8 year olds. The Do It Myself Kids Cookbook, with its wordless table of contents and pictographic recipes, is designed for children as young as age 4. 

My First Cookbook does not include a suggested age range, but according to the Flesch Reading Ease, My First Cookbook would be easily understood by sixth graders. The Dale-Chall test puts it at a seventh or eighth grade level. We can roughly estimate that the age level of this cookbook is for children ages 11 to 14. 

It's possible that My First Cookbook was treating its readers like confident, capable kitchen users because at that age, they were. Modern kids' cookbooks might not be treating kids like confident, capable kitchen users because they can't reach the counters yet. It's not unreasonable to position an adult between a four year old and the gas range or to hold the six year old's hand as she works with a chef's knife. Some cookbook authors are now focusing on pre-readers. Sesame Street's Let's Cook, for example, is addressed primarily to a mostly pre-reading audience of 2-5 year olds. 

What if the rise of phrases like "ask an adult to help" is evidence not of dumbing down our instructions to kids, but of our age-inappropriate expectations both for literacy and kitchen skills? What kinds of safety instructions are you encountering in kids' cookbooks? Do they seem appropriate for the age range?