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Sharp like knives

(This essay is an excerpt from Kristen Hansen Brakeman’s upcoming book, Is That the Shirt You’re Wearing? It’s reposted by permission of the author.)

As I set down the orange juice on the breakfast table, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of my 12-year-old daughter, Samantha, struggling to cut up her pancakes. Holding her knife in her left fist like a ski pole and her fork like a video game nunchuck, she ground the two utensils together until her plate became a mess of shredded, torn pancake bits.

My future Mensa member and current household video-game champion had no more ability to use a knife than had our cat.

How did she escape learning this basic life skill? Looking back I admit I purposely kept knives away from my kids. I thought that giving a sharp object to a child could only end badly.

Whenever we went to a restaurant where knives were recklessly set on the table, the inevitable sibling sword fight would ensue, only confirming my suspicions.

It’s likely also that a diet of kid foods were partly to blame. One doesn’t need to cut up chicken nuggets, pizza, and macaroni and cheese. Though my kids often dine on more grown-up fare like salmon, shrimp and pastas; these are again, all fork-friendly foods.

After deciding to brush off the knife incident as a minor blemish on my otherwise spotless parental record, I was faced with another shortcoming.

My two older girls wanted me to bake a heart-healthy corn soufflé to serve our dinner guests. Rushed for time, I instructed them to start without me by gathering all the ingredients and opening up the cans of creamed corn.

With the front room finally tidy, I went to check on their progress. I walked in to find every drawer in the kitchen open as my daughters rummaged about, muttering, “I don’t know which one is a can opener. Is this a can opener?”

“No, I think it’s this thing,” the other one said, holding a corkscrew. “Or maybe it’s that thing there?” while pointing at a garlic press.

Astonished, I interrupted. “What? Do you mean to tell me that neither one of you knows what a can opener looks like?” I reached into the appropriate drawer. “This is a can opener!”

“Oh,” they said in unison.

“You’ve never used a can opener?” I demanded, only to be treated to shrugs and the onset of uncontrollable giggles. “Oh, yeah. Go ahead and laugh.”

I tried to impress them with the seriousness of the situation. “It won’t be so funny when The Big One comes and Daddy and I are squished under the entertainment center and you kids have to fend for yourselves. What will you do then? Huh? I’ll tell you what you’ll do. You’ll starve! I can see the story on the Ten o’clock News: ‘Local children starve to death in a kitchen surrounded by cans of food!’”

Now gasping for air, Chloe somehow managed to squeak out, “We won’t starve. We’ll order a pizza.”

I ignored her. “This weekend, the two of you are going to learn about the kitchen, and we will have a special class in advanced knife work.”

Morning came and after a half-hour of Show and Tell with the kitchen utensils and appliances, I presented my children with a stack of easy-to-cut French Toast.

I gave them a lengthy dissertation on proper knife holding technique and exact index finger placement for maximum pressure, and then encouraged them to try it themselves.

Chloe tried to flaunt her knife skills first, but soon food went flying over the edge of her plate. Samantha made a couple feeble attempts and then disregarded my advice and began mashing up her French Toast like she had her pancakes. Again, more giggles.

I was ready to admit defeat when my seven-year old asked, “Mommy, am I doing it right?”

To be honest, I forgot my overlooked third child was even at the table. But now, I was thrilled to learn someone had actually been paying attention.

“Why yes!” I gushed. “You are doing it right! Wow, girls… look at your much younger sister. See how well she wields her knife? Why can’t you two be more like her? Excellent job, Peyton. Here, have some more syrup and powdered sugar.”

I knew very well I had violated the advice of every parenting book by comparing the children to one another, but I didn’t care. I was feeling desperate.

Sadly, my efforts were all in vain. Chloe and Samantha soon abandoned their utensils entirely and resorted to ripping bites of French toast with their teeth, much like the feral children they were apparently meant to be.

The good news was that at least my youngest child would someday be able to enter civilized society.

In the meantime, I can only hope that some Silicon Valley whiz invents a game that teaches kids how to use a butter knife.

— Kristen Hansen Brakeman

Kristen Hansen Brakeman’s comedic essays have appeared in The New York Times’ Motherlode, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Working Mother Magazine, Scary Mommy and on our blog. Her debut collection of comic essays, Is That the Shirt You’re Wearing?, will be published in May 2017. She has appeared on Huff Post Live to endlessly debate the use of the word “Ma’am,” is a reviewer for the New York Journal of Books, and a guest blogger for the Christian Science Monitor. Real humans have compared her writing style to both Erma Bombeck and Nora Ephron, but possibly they were intoxicated at the time. Brakeman works behind the scenes on television variety shows and lives in the suburbs of Los Angeles with her husband and three daughters.

Reflections of Erma