All of us have our own quirks, and I’d like to let you in on one of mine this week: I love to cook, especially when it involves Italian cooking, using plenty of herbs and chopped vegetables. There are few activities that bring me more joy than having the freedom to create pizzas using whatever variety of produce and meats we happen to have on hand. I suspect I am also like many other cooks out there: when we get involved in the process of preparing a meal, we like to have loads of space to work in, and with a minimum of interference from others. In some ways, I suppose one could say that cooking is often a self-centred activity in our society, and that assistance in cooking is often neither desired nor offered.

What makes this character trait I share with others so difficult is that when kids (and teens!) are present, they would often like to help, and would enjoy the process if invited. My six year-old daughter is overjoyed when I ask her if she would like to “help Daddy grate some cheese and spread it on the pizzas”, even though I would probably prefer to put it on myself and save time and mess. She gets on her little stool, grabs two big handfuls of mozzarella, and starts spreading it as carefully and skillfully as she can. It is almost impossible for me not to smile and enjoy this beautiful moment with her. On the other hand, it crushes me to think of all the times she has asked to help me prepare something in the kitchen, and I’ve told her to go play or watch a cartoon instead.

All young people have inherent needs both to be independent, and to belong. A sense of independence means that when being given an area of responsibility, it will be accompanied by a degree of trust that sends an important message: you are capable, and will not need me to do this task for you. Belonging is just as critical – by inviting someone to help us in the kitchen, for example, we are actually saying that through their efforts they are needed! Children usually don’t know or care why they are being asked for their assistance here, they are honoured to have been asked to perform what would normally be considered an “adult” job, and that’s good enough for them.

These ideas are even more impactful in times of controlled crisis, where someone has a need, and every individual in the family has an opportunity to help out during urgent or critical events. Having been in Calgary visiting relatives this past week, I had the opportunity to hear stories of last summer’s flood related again. One theme that never fails to come up is that not only did entire neighbourhoods band together to help those in need, but families, including kids of ALL ages, pitched in wherever they could. Interestingly, when I hear from kids and teens themselves about the flood, it is almost inevitable that they will smile and talk about the destruction in a neighbour’s basement, and how everyone “got to help” break ruined drywall and carry garbage and sludge out to the street. Why the smiles?

The smiles, I am convinced, are the result of being given a gift: a request to help out during a time of crisis using his/her own individual efforts and generosity. They are being asked, by extension, to become involved in the fullness of life, mud and all, for a few minutes or hours, and to leave the protection of the safety bubble many parents assume their kids need to remain inside whenever possible. When they are needed to perform a task that is full of purpose and woven together with a message of “you are capable”, kids and teens often get a jolt of energy from this sudden purpose-filled activity. Whether during a time of critical need, of simple household tasks, or even preparing pizzas for going in the oven, parents and elders have an opportunity to help young people grow in significant and irreplaceable ways. If we choose to send these special invitations to participate in life in meaningful ways, the rewards can be felt for years to come.