How Cooking With My Son Makes Me A Competitive Dad

I do all the cooking at home. I enjoy cooking, I find it relaxing. I get a deep sense of satisfaction from producing a great tasting dish and seeing people enjoy it. I enjoy cooking so much I worked in a pub kitchen for a while. I’m pretty good at it too. We men are often maligned for not being able to multi-task, but I can do it, in the kitchen at least. I produced 46 meals in under two hours once in the pub. On my own. A while back at home, I had meringue in the oven and a pasta sauce simmering away on the back of the stove, while on a front hob I stirred vanilla custard for some chocolate ice cream I was also making. Oh yes, I can cook. So why is it that I rarely enjoy cooking with my son?

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Before he was born, back when I thought parenting was going to be a breeze (don’t lie, you thought that too), I had fantasies of cooking with my son. He’d totter on a chair pulled up to the worktop, adorably giggling in his over-sized chef’s hat and apron as I wiped flour from his rosy cheeks. We would spend hours producing shortbread in the shape of his favourite dinosaurs and icing them perfectly. I would teach him to love vegetables and fruit and sushi and such and he would look up to me as the wise sensei I am.

Yeah right.

I’ve tried baking with him on numerous occasions, as well as making burgers and mac ‘n’ cheese. We even made sausages once. The problem is, he doesn’t do it right. He doesn’t take it seriously enough. He isn’t good enough at it. Except none of those are the problems. That’s what I tell myself the problem is, but the real problem is that I care too much about it.

When I kick a ball about with my boy it’s fun because I couldn’t give a furry rat’s arse about football. I have no interest in setting up goals or scoring them. I just kick the ball about and allow my son to dictate the play. If he decides that he’s a Velociraptor kicking the ball and I’m a statue, so I can’t move. Great, whatever, have it, son. I have no investment in this whatsoever. Happy daddy, happy boy.

I’m not a competitive dad. I don’t understand the notion of having to win at everything. I don’t think children need to learn harsh lessons about the unfairness of the world over a game of snakes and ladders. I’ll happily chuck my ball down the gutter so my son can win at bowling.

Cooking though, cooking I care about. I’ve spent years learning and practicing so I know what I’m talking about. It’s not a competition but it does have rules. Cooking is my thing. One of my things anyway (RE other things – I can’t very introduce my son to Bourbon quiet yet and I’m not having him fuck up Formula One for me by asking non-stop questions about it all day). So, I keep trying to cook with him and it keeps going wrong.

It’s not his fault. He’s got pretty good knife skills for a novice, and he’s always enthusiastic to crack on. He really enjoys cooking with his grandma, so I know the potential for a great father/son experience is there. I just can’t seem to relax into it enough to forget the rules. Grumpy daddy, grumpy boy.

My son’s relationship with food is confusing to say the least. He doesn’t eat fresh fruit because it’s “too slimy” but he loves pureed fruit. He doesn’t like vegetables because, well, his reasons are too numerous to mention here, but suffice to say, they’re all stupid.

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He loves chicken, and sausages, though he doesn’t eat the end of the sausage because it’s “too round”. Plain pasta or spaghetti is fine but not with sauce and he’ll only eat “the right” cheese. Bread is good but toast is “too brown”. It’s exhausting trying to keep up with the rules. I want cooking to be the catalyst for his love of food to begin but it isn’t. He didn’t touch the burgers we’d made together (“too meaty”, of course) and he only ever wants the icing from a cake.

I think it’s my attitude to the cooking experience that puts him off. Kids are really good at picking up on stress in adults and maybe my insistence on “the rules” is ruining it. Maybe, when it comes to cooking, I am a competitive dad. I’m not competing with my son but with my own warped expectations of perfectionism.

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It doesn’t have to be cooking. For you it might be your favourite sport, movie or TV show. It’s difficult, once you’re invested in something enough to have a deep knowledge of it, to allow someone else to see it in vague terms. The urge to correct the little mistakes or add a bit of knowledge to the conversation is very strong. That’s all well and good in the pub but not necessarily with kids. Nothing ruins Return of the Jedi more for a little one than dad pausing it to explain at length why a Wookiee isn’t a tall Ewok.

I worry that my perfectionism is turning my son away from the things I love. I wonder if my son will end up loving the things I am ambivalent towards, such as football, because those are the things we have both enjoyed doing, no pressure, no rules, no grumpy daddy. Maybe it’ll be the same for you too. Unless you’re a better, more chilled out sensei than me.

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