Cooking as its Own Reward: How to Keep Lesser Motives From Spoiling the Broth

Mar 23, 2009 by

Girls cooking At my house, my kids help cook and do some cooking of their own. They also take their turns at doing the dishes after dinner.  My approach to getting them to cook varies greatly from how I get them to do the cleaning up, though. Why? Because while true passion about cooking is possible, probably no one alive has more than a fairly limited enthusiasm for washing dishes.

Every child is born naturally interested in cooking. When they see an adult breaking eggs, stirring, mixing, measuring, using equipment like spring-form pans and muffin tins, and tools like knives, whisks , blenders and mixers, and witness miraculous, appetizing transformations emerging from the oven, they want to get involved. And rightly so.

So how do we encourage that intrinsic motivation, and not extinguish it?

Use the Suzuki Method

I use the Suzuki method of quitting while I’m ahead.  Suzuki’s way of teaching music, counterintuitive in our society, directs us to stop them while they still want more instead of pushing to the point of resistance in order to get in as much as possible of instruction or practice.

Keep an activity fun and it remains something that we get to do, not have to do.  My goal is to aim always at whetting the appetite, increasing the desire to do, not necessarily increasing the amount of doing.

The trick is to avoid making it a burden for either party. I have always been casual and spontaneous about getting my kids cooking. Early and easy successes feed their interest. Brownie mixes are a great tool. Occasion little forays into cooking can have a big impact, building the foundation of fun and confidence.

Also in keeping with Suzuki’s principles, the better cooking they’re regularly exposed to, the more inspired they will be.

Let Cooking Be Its Own Reward

Whatever you do, don’t ever reward a child for cooking. The whole point is that they be interested in doing it for its own sake.  Rewarding them sends the message that it’s not something worth doing except for a reward.

According to dozens of studies reported by Alfie Kohn in Punished by Rewards:  The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, being rewarded for an activity tends to reduce one’s interest in doing it, and the chances of doing it again without a reward.

The worst move is rewarding someone for doing something that we would like her to find motivating in its own right, like reading, learning or being generous, Kohn warns.  It’s controlling and manipulative and tends to backfire.

I’m cautious, on the other hand, not to turn cooking into a grim duty.  I really do need my kids’ help cooking sometimes and Iet them know when I do. But I don’t see how any good can come of communicating that, “By gum, I have to do this, so you have to do this. You best prepare for reality, for the drudgery of life.”

That’s like going on a first date and telling your date everything that’s wrong with you before they get a chance to fall for your charms. Once we’ve truly fallen in love with someone, we can, ideally at least, accept little flaws that may gradually emerge.

Let Them Do the Fun Part

Being a sous-chef (under-chef) of the kitchen is less interesting than being the chef. The chef takes charge, selects a recipe, makes whatever makes her heart sing, and does the enjoyable parts instead of just chopping vegetables to fulfill someone else’s vision. For kids who think that being an adult means doing whatever you want, this may be a good motivator.  Let them dream of the day they can fix whatever they want to eat, every single day, like I do.  My family knows that since I’m the chef, I make whatever I feel like making.  On the other hand, any time they want to take over, I will be their sous-chef.  I’ll do their menial tasks.  I’ll clean up. Thus their desire for self-determination is encouraged.

Who doesn’t like to get her own way? That desire can be leveraged. At our house, vinaigrette is a subject of disagreement. Three of us have our own ways of doing it and each believes his way is best. The one who makes it gets to Do it My Way.

As for washing dishes, we take turns at our house, according to a little chart on the side of the fridge. We tell the kids to do it because they are contributing members of the family and that it’s part of the necessary drudgery of life. Otherwise, but for a sense of order that helps hold our lives together, an opportunity to enjoy doing it well and a time of quiet reflection and mental relaxation, they get no external motivators for doing dishes any more than cooking. Who needs to be controlled that way, after all? That’s about all there is to my strategy on that.

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 23 March 2009 / All rights reserved

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

I first heard about Alfie Kohn at a parent meeting for our Charlotte Mason school! His books are great, lots of enlightening examples about how kids react internally to external motivators. The one I mention above really gave me a solid footing in understanding what's wrong with bribes and rewards. When I was a newspaper reporter, I did a some research and a story on allowances for kids. Based on what I found out, I believe the best way to teach kids about money is to give them an allowance and require them to help around the house. They need money and they need to learn how to handle their own money under your supervision. Being paid for chores is more like being an hourly laborer, or an employee in one's own house. I like the idea more of being more part of a family, being expected to help out and do their part like the parents do, and to have money that's more like a salary. If you give them gold stars/pay them, they will probably be more likely to do the minimum and only do what they get paid for. It could get complicated. The chart we had on our fridge just showed whose turn it was. Nobody got any credit. It worked well. A quote from Your Money magazine I found: "An allowance is basically money you're going to spend on your child anyway, just given in a different form. Instead of paying for things at the time your children want them, you pay them an allowance and let them decide how to spend the money." Miss Manners said, " It is an ugly idea that a child should contribute his part to his own household for wages, while the parents do the greater work for free." Kohn says the worst time to reward kids is for something you want them to WANT to do, as I said above. You want your child to pull his weight in the house, clean up after himself, help others, not because he gets something, but because it is right and good. An allowance teaches them to save, teaches them the pain of not saving, allows them to play with money with no real risk and where you can influence them, before they go off on their own. We cut off our son's allowance when he was old enough and had time to get a job. Our daughter still gets one past that same age because she does a huge amount of extracurricular activities and gets top grades--no time to work. Though she does get a summer job each year. If I had it do over again, I would leverage the allowance more to make them clean up their rooms better: your room's a mess, we dock your allowance.


I've been reading some of Charlotte Mason's writings on 'motivation' recently, and it sounds like she has exactly the same low opinion of external, manipulating means of motivation as Kohn. My kids love helping me cook at the moment, but I do use gold stars for other things (like washing up) for my oldest, as a way to 'save up' for things/toys he would like to buy. I guess reading this I would like to stop doing that and have him help because it is right. What do you do about pocket money? Thanks :)

You didn't mention that it helps when the dad supports you and even cooks. I grew up helping my mom cook at home and those are precious memories. She would let me help cook cakes, pies, flan, and crepes (it helps when there is a sweet batter and you can lick the spoon) from as young as I can remember. It's easy for me to come along and help Anna. I'm not a chef like she is, but I enjoy a little cooking and seeing our kids cook.


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