Self-Reliance Through Peanut Butter and Jelly

Clues on Kids #010

A new school year is already just around the corner.  Your child is in the midst of…

Wait just a minute, Sir! You’re already thinking about the new school year? Summer JUST started! Let me sleep in for a few more weeks… at least! Parents get time off from school too, ya know!

I hear you! Summer is a great time to get a little break from the hustle and chaos of school. If you were like most other parents, you couldn’t wait to say good-bye to those late night homework sessions and bumbling argumentative mornings trying to get out of the house on time. Maybe, like many parents, you promised yourself to find a plan to make things go a little smoother.  Well, if you haven’t thought of a plan yet, let me introduce you to an idea that might make life just a little smoother… or crunchy depending upon your tastes.  

Mission: Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich!


child learning and being proud of making her own sandwich


The catch is that you have to implement the plan now, while summer is relaxed and lazy.  So, absolutely yes, go ahead and enjoy the summer break.  Heck, throw out that alarm clock if you want to.  However, now is the time to work on a simple way to make your child a little more school-ready than he was last year. 

It’s quite simple actually.  It involves your child, two pieces of bread, a butter knife, and PB&J.  

Oh, I know where you’re going with this!  Are you crazy?  I thought you were going to make my life easier?

Your reaction is precisely the reason why we’re starting this now; so the learning curve can be huge (and it will be).  There’ll be some jelly smears on the fridge, peanut butter on the light switch, and even a butter knife lost in the garbage disposal.  However, all of those things are so much more manageable when it’s not in combination with madly hunting for matching shoes, homework, and the hairbrush.  Of course, everything depends upon the individual, but most six-year-olds can learn to spread peanut butter and jelly on bread with ease and confidence. 

If PB&J isn’t her thing, discover something else that would be appropriate.  Choosing something that she doesn’t like to eat or choosing a meal that is too challenging will lead to arguments and ZERO lessons learned!  Both of which are things that are easily avoidable.  I choose peanut butter and jelly not because it’s a great all-American standby, but because this sandwich is simple to make and because it’s nutritious.  A healthy, natural jar of nut butter, a low-sugar jelly, and nutritious bread provide just the right amount of energy and protein to your child’s growing body.  This is really leading into another topic, but I want to add that learning how to make a sandwich is the perfect opportunity to also learn about how to make healthy food choices… and that, as we know, is a topic that can never be discussed too much.

Clearly you think we have a lot of extra time on our hands!  I’m now supposed to devote time to something that I could easily get done by myself in two minutes, blindfolded, while I de-flea the dog and fold laundry?

Whether you’re a stay-at-home parent or a working parent or a single parent, there is no shortage of pressures that our society places upon you.  There are more technological advances now that are supposed to make our lives easier, but oddly enough, they easily make our lives more hectic.  Whether you have someone in your house devoted to preparing food, or even if you feel you have the time to make the sandwich yourself, nothing beats a lesson in self-reliance like learning how to make your own food.  After all, what is the big picture all about here?  Having a child who grows into a self-confident and self-reliant adult.  

So, yes!  In the beginning, you will need to spend a little extra energy.  Be prepared for that.  To start off, make sure you have enough SPPIT: Support, Patience, Positive Involvement, and Time.  

  • Every child needs Support to know that he is not alone.  As the parent, you are your child’s number one cheerleader.
  • She needs your Patience so she understands that some things require more than one try before gaining competency, AND that you’re perfectly fine staying with her while she navigates the learning curve.
  • You need to remain Positively Involved so that you can be present every step of the way and actually witness your child achieving these milestones.
    • Being emotionally and mentally present with your child means you’ve put your tablet and smartphone away… texting and emails can wait.
    • Your child will grow up whether you’re witnessing it or not.
    • Besides, you really don’t want jelly smeared on your touchscreen anyway.
  • The last thing that ties it all together: Time!  Without it, the other elements won’t be as meaningful.
    • In other words, when you’re running out of time, do you discover that your patience is shorter or even non-existent?
    • Without time, you find yourself not involved with what he’s doing because you’re so busy dealing with other things.
    • Or even less effective, do you become negatively involved (e.g. screaming, yelling, arguing)?
    • How hard is it to lend support to another family member when you don’t even have time to support your own needs?  

Giving her support means you take the time to understand HOW to support your child.  In the case of the PB&J Adventure, support means finding out and ACKNOWLEDGING what her strengths are and encouraging her (such as taking the bread out of the bag and using the super fun twisty tie to put the bread away all by herself) as well as discovering where she needs a little more guidance (e.g. jars that are too tight or what angle to hold the knife).  This doesn’t mean you do it for her.  It means you Support her while she does it.

Isn’t this what parenting is all about?  Every newly acquired skill requires some good old-fashioned SPITT.  Whether it’s teeth cleaning, using scissors, tying her shoes, etc.  Blood, sweat and tears should be saved for farm labor or the boxing ring.  On the other hand, unending amounts of SPITT will make your kid shine!   

SPITT huh?  But it’s July!  Why do I have to think about this in July???

July = Time.  Time allows for those great mistakes to happen, and that’s okay!  Since you wisely remember the other elements of the SPITT equation, everything else will fall into place, creating a self-reliant, confident child in September who can make a mean PB&J Sandwich to be envied by all!

Remember, the earlier you start, the quicker your kid will catch on and maybe even show eagerness to learn a new skill.  Confidence begets confidence.  What is more exciting than learning how to do something that you once thought you couldn’t do?  What about using that butter knife for the first time, for the actual purpose that it was designed for?!?  

Holy cow!  Mom’s trusting me with a knife?!?

Yet another perfect opportunity for an important life-lesson: how to properly handle a knife.

My little man has enough to worry about with school.  That’s his job.  Won’t this extra responsibility put too much pressure on him?

Well, if you want your little man to one day grow up into a big man he’ll have to eventually learn how to take care of himself.  Learning his A-B-C’s and 1-2-3’s is not his ONLY job.  He also must learn things like social skills, awareness of his surroundings and most importantly, self-reliance.  

You are teaching him to make a sandwich.  You are not teaching him the life application of π.  In that regard, jelly on the floor or a little wasted bread in the learning process is not the end of the world.  There is no pressure here to get a grade that will allow him into Princeton.  Learning how to feed yourself a healthy, nutritious meal should not be looked at as a responsibility but rather a way of life.  Responsibility implies work, and work implies hard, and hard means, “I don’t want to do it!”  So this task is not about having a new responsibility and most certainly not meant to add pressure to your child.  This task is about encouraging growth.  

Think of it this way, would you rather your child start the growing pains of self-sufficiency at age six or sixteen?  For those of you with teenagers, this is an all too easy question to answer.  Learning the fine art of peanut butter spreading takes time to master no matter how old you are.  Once he gets into college, wouldn’t it be comforting to know that he isn’t eating instant mac & cheese three meals a day?

Suppose that I was brave enough to take on this harrowing mission to help my child make her own lunch.  How do I teach her without it turning into a culinary-calamity?  

First of all, I recommend that you approach this project with an attitude of,

Hey!  Let’s go have some fun in the kitchen!

Refrain from implying that you have ANY expectations.  None.  Zilch.  Zero.  It’s simply about you and your child having fun.  However, starting off by saying in an overly authoritarian tone, “It’s time you learned to do something for yourself and come September you’re going to make your own lunch!” will quickly put up that defense wall and anxieties will take over.  

When beginning this exercise in personal growth, be prepared for… well…  anything!  Hopefully you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how smooth it can go, or even cause an unexpected grin because you don’t remember the last time you two had such silly fun together.  If it seems messy, clumsy, awkward, or downright crazy, then you’ll have no place to go but up!  I promise you that every day you’ll see some growth.  It may be slow and barely noticeable, but trust that the growth is happening.  If you remember the magic SPITT equation and make it a fun experience, she will more than likely be ready to take over on her own within a few weeks to a month.  While you will be investing extra time in the beginning of this process, it will save you much more time in the future.  

Again… make it fun!  This is a great opportunity to have some quality parent/child bonding time.  If you are able to set an enjoyable tone during this culinary adventure, more than likely your kid will follow suit.  C’mon!  A glob of jelly plopped on the dog’s forehead… who could resist laughing at that?

Remember to make something easy.  For example, if you are going to make a turkey and cheese sandwich, then buy turkey cold cuts that are easy to separate and pre-sliced cheese.  At that point, it’s a matter of placing the slices on the bread and then squeezing or spreading on her favorite condiment.  

Seriously?  How much help does my kid need with this stuff?  Why can’t he just figure this out on his own?

While this sounds like an incredibly easy task, it isn’t if you are a child who has never done it before.  For example, how is he supposed to know how much mustard is too much if he’s never squeezed the bottle before?  Therefore, be sure to sincerely acknowledge all of his efforts.  This will keep your child excited and engaged even when he makes mistakes… which of course, he will do… often!  It’s important to be ready for those inevitable oops moments and deal with them with tremendous unflappability.  Your anger won’t teach him to want to learn; it will only prove to him that he’s not good enough to meet your expectations.  An activity that turns into having to prove himself worthy will quickly deflate all that excitement that he may have had in the beginning of the project.  At that point, it all becomes a power struggle with no one winning… and neither of you learning!

After several days of mastering one complete meal, help him learn another and repeat the cycle.  After a while, he’ll know at least five different lunches to prepare… one for each day of the week so he gets to enjoy some variety.  

A child should never be made to feel badly for making a mistake.  Instead, he should be given the skills and loving support to learn from them.

Okay, let’s say my kid starts making her lunch for school and she seems to be doing well.  Then one day, she forgets or just doesn’t want to do it?

It’s not IF she forgets, it is WHEN she forgets, because she will.  Don’t let this catch you off guard.  To use a quote from the President a few years back, it is a “… teachable moment.”  The magical equation of SPPIT is not just for learning HOW to make a sandwich; it’s also great for dealing with setbacks.  

  • Support her feelings when she feels like this new idea is the dumbest thing on the planet.  While you may disagree with her fantasy of eating potato chips from the vending machine for lunch each day at school, showing her empathy works to your advantage much better than criticizing her judgment.
  • Patience will help you stay calm as you listen to her complaints about it not being fair.
  • Positive Involvement will help your child understand that you are on her side and that you get her complaints.  This is not the time to slough her off and ignore her.
  • Time is what you’ll have to invest when you backslide a little bit… and that’s okay.  Maybe all it takes is two days of you making the sandwich together again, having fun, and recreating that bond you made over the summer when the jelly flew through the air landing in your hair.  You know the saying, two steps forward… one step back.  Well… that dance happens again and again, to everybody.  Recognizing that these backward steps are okay and not a sign of incompetence, will help her gain those steps forward more gracefully.  

Really?  Our schedule is so packed, how will we ever have time for these backward steps?  Honestly, the deed could be done in two minutes if I just took over!

At six years old, time is on your side.  Take it now while you still can!  Embrace the chance to be a guide for your child while he is still hungry for it, and you’ll be grateful that you’re not teaching these simple life skills to a sixteen year old!  There have been parents afraid to send their kid off to college because in 18 years he was never taught the difference between “Bake” and “Toast” on the toaster oven.  A child may have a 4.5 GPA with the dorms at Stanford waiting, but he must master certain basic life skills so dorm life is not a social catastrophe.  

So when school starts up again, how do I implement all this?

When autumn rolls around, I urge you to help your kid create a routine the night before with some checks and balances that you are involved in.  This will help her stay on schedule in making her lunch involving gentle reminders, a daily job chart and appropriate incentives to help set her up for success.  Nevertheless, no matter how structured you keep her, she’s still only human, and inevitably she will either forget or choose not to bring her lunch to school.

More than likely, your child’s school has a program where they serve a school lunch to any child who forgets to bring it and then request payment from the parents later on.  If you find yourselves in this situation over and over again, you may consider creating an appropriate consequence where she earns the money spent on her lunch; but don’t be too quick to blame.  If you do find yourselves repeatedly in that kind of situation, then maybe you need to look at what other pressures your child might have.  Perhaps there are other obligations or distractions too tempting to ignore that are honestly getting in the way of your child having time and energy to make her lunch.  

Is she getting enough down time?  Children are just that: CHILDREN.  They are not little adults.  They are children, and their emotional, mental, physical and spiritual needs are different than that of a grown person.  Honor them and discover a solution together, which still allows her self-reliance to be fostered, yet remain the child that she is. 

Let’s look at the big picture here.  The more your kid gains mastery in her world, the easier it will be for her to feel confidence and empowered.  She’ll not only be able to face challenging obstacles in her life, but she’ll be able to face them with relative ease.  Learning how to accept those two steps back without shame will actually evolve into her thinking about ALL of her steps as forward movements.  What greater sight is there than seeing a confident, proud child who welcomes mistakes as if they were the greatest thing since sliced Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches!

As Albert Einstein is famous for saying,

A person who never made a mistake, never tried anything new.

Let’s make sure our kids are not afraid of trying anything new. 

(updated article from August 2009)

Kids should be allowed to make mistakes on their own.  But they don’t have to be alone when they try to learn from them.

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