Why I'm Teaching My Son to Bake and My Daughter to Do Home Repairs

This writer is taking the unexpected approach of teaching her son his way around the kitchen and her daughter her way around a toolbox.

July 16, 2018

My grandmother was an expert at pretty much everything she did. She sewed smocked dresses by hand and knitted booties for all her grandkids. I have a picture she took of me when I was about two-years-old sitting with her spare-buttons tin and a strip of cloth on her wooden floor giddily "sewing" away. I have that picture and the scrap of cloth with inexpertly sewed buttons attached in a wooden shadow box she mitred herself to give me as a present when I was grown.

In the kitchen she was a master. Her desserts were to die for. She made her own jam. To this day, I have a very precise memory of shaking down a packet of yeast so that all the grainy bits would settle to the bottom before I ripped it open to pour into a bowl of warm milk. We'd roll out the dough for sticky buns, and she'd let me handle spreading on the cinnamon and sugar myself before rolling it all up and slicing the log into heavenly buns. She was beyond generous about sharing what she knew with her 16 grandchildren.

My mother, bless her heart, was a single mom for a while with three latchkey kids. Teen siblings are good for looking after a younger sibling, but they didn't have a lot of interest in making things for me to eat, so I took the rudimentary skills and the confidence my grandmother had given me and learned to cook for myself. As a teen, my mom would happily let me try new recipes out on the family for dinner or dessert and always eagerly compliment the results. Flourless chocolate cakes, lasagne with bolognese and my now-famous salty chocolate chip cookies are all rooted in my childhood kitchen.

When I was a little older, my mom remarried and I gained a stepfather who was equally generous in sharing his skills. As an avid camper and spelunker, he was more than eager to have a protege to whom he could pass on the finer points of outdoor life. At around eight or nine years old, he'd take us on camping trips and show me how to set up a tent while being mindful of not getting fiberglass from the poles in my tiny hands. I learned how to build a fire and cook dinner over the flames. He'd strap on a helmet and have one for me too with a light attached so that we could snake our way through caves and discover underground caverns. He was always happy to have me as an assistant in his woodshop.

One year in middle school, I was desperate for a loft bed. Money was tight and buying one just wasn't in the cards, so he told me we could make one ourselves. For months, we'd work away at the project, sometimes sitting on the living room floor chiseling grooves by hand for the slats in the frame while we watched TV. When I moved into my first apartment, he gave me an old toolbox stuffed with well-loved tools that were once his. To this day, when I open it up, the metallic and wood-shaving smells that emanate from it remind me of being a kid by his side learning how to make things.

I love that I have these two sides of me, one expected one and one not so expected but both rooted in learning how to do things myself. I am proud to be the "fixer" in my house. If a bookcase needs to be built, I build it. When my kitchen faucet needing replacing, I watched a few videos and replaced it. If there is a fireplace in need of a fire, I build the fire. These gifts I received as a child shaped who I am today and when I had kids of my own, I wanted nothing more to impart to them some skills that I felt they should have; especially skills that society might not expect them to have. So I teach them how to do things for themselves. Having a boy and girl twins has given me the opportunity to impart the unexpected. Of course, it's an outmoded way of thinking, but boys aren't necessarily the ones that parents teach how to bake. And girls aren't, as a matter of course, the ones parents teach how to fix the water heater. But that's just what I'm doing.

Yes, I do teach each of them the full gamut of life skills but I really want to underscore that there aren't assigned roles to their sexes. Happily, each of them has shown an interest in the "unexpected" skills and it makes me proud that they do. I don't make a big deal out of it, but I foster those natural interests because I think it will make them better people.

My son is the one who sticks around the kitchen when we all get a hankering for cookies. I pull out the mixer and he's by my side in a flash. I show him, just like my grandmother showed me, how to level off the flour in the measuring cups and sift it slowly into the mixture. He's a pro at cracking eggs and can make brownies himself now. He'll take them to school and let his friends know he made them himself.

When my daughter was about four, one of her favorite things to do was to pull out that toolbox my stepfather had given me, flip her tiny bicycle upside down and start "fixing" it, even though nothing was broken. So when our water heater stopped putting out hot water the other week while she was in the shower, I knew I wanted to show her how to handle it. We opened up the water closet and I dutifully taught her how to relight it. Ultimately it needed a plumber and a new water heater, though. When the replacement was happening she was the one up in the plumber's business wanting to know about the soldering of pipes and replacement of the unit. I couldn't have been prouder.

They are 11 now, and yes, my daughter does love playing with her Calico Critters and the tiny house they live in. And yes, my son will endlessly engage in battles with his action figures. Both of those things are typically "girl" and "boy" activities, and I don't discourage them in any way. But she will gladly battle him with swords in the living room. And, even though she may be annoyed with him doing so (because brothers will be brothers, after all), he wants to play with her Calico Critters when she does.

Far too often, children are shuttled into roles that they are expected to have an affinity for because society at large says so. Girls cook and boys fix. But what service are we doing our children by limiting them to those narrow interests? You end up with a population of men who can't make themselves dinner and women who are at a loss when an appliance needs a repair. I find it empowering to watch shows about the amazing women who are renovating houses or the male bakers who create delicate dessert masterpieces. The pages of this site and our sister sites show us that all people need is some knowledge. What they do with that knowledge can be pretty spectacular, regardless of their sex. I can pretty much guarantee that once my kids are out in the world on their own, they'll be able to cook for themselves and take care of their homes. And if they run into trouble with either one, they can always call their mom.

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