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Cartoon: boy mixing cookie dough
Note: this does not look at all like my son!

How I Taught My Son to Bake - And What You Can Learn from It

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

My 19 year old son bakes great cakes and cookies. Here's how I helped him learn to do so by doing almost nothing.

When my sons were younger, they liked to help out in the kitchen − as many kids do. Their mother is a good cook and is good at delegating kitchen tasks. She'd often have the boys chopping things up or mixing things together. I am not so good at delegating in the kitchen, but I tried − especially after their mother and now my ex-wife − left. One day, my oldest son who was probably around nine or ten years old at the time, asked me to bake cookies so he could help − and enjoy some fresh, homemade cookies. I had work to do. So, I suggested he have a go at doing them himself.

We found a favourite recipe in an the Fannie Farmer cookbook and he was ready to go. I told him that if he had any questions, he could ask me. As it happens, the Fannie Farmer cookbook is American and its recipes are full of strange abbreviations for children brought up in the metric system. So, my son frequently burst into my study to ask me, for example, what an "oz" or a "tbsp" was. Each time I explained and then he raced off back to the kitchen to continue.

Once the cookies were baked, we tried them and we surprised to discover they were not at all sweet. So, I told him he was a failure and never let him bake again!

No, of course, that's not true. I let him observe that the cookies were no sweet and, when he did, I asked him why he believed this had happened. He thought about it and realised that he had neglected to add sugar to the dough. He reckoned that the next time he tried to bake, he would be careful to make sure he included all the ingredients.

In spite of the flawed first attempt, he thoroughly enjoyed baking cookies and was proud that he could make things himself. So, he kept at it. His next batch of cookies was fine, which was a good confidence booster. Then he made ginger snaps and decided to get creative by putting in significantly more cinnamon and ginger than the recipe required. The result were some of the spiciest ginger snaps I had ever experienced. But he knew why they were so spicy and learned from it.

My oldest son is now 19 and in university. He does not have time to bake so much now. But when he does, he is an awesome baker. And I take pride in having helped him by doing almost nothing beyond giving him encouragement to bake, allowing him to bake things himself and discussing the results as learning experiences rather than successes and failures. Sure, we had to throw away a few cookies and a cake or two that were not as nice as they could be. But, he learned so much with the failures and successes. Today, not only can he follow recipes, but he knows how to modify them and what kind of results to expect. Indeed, these days I am the one asking him questions when it comes to baking.

Teach People to Do Things by Letting Them Do Things

I believe there is a lesson here for parents and managers: one of the best ways of teaching people how to do things is by letting them do things, allowing them to make mistakes and discussing what went wrong − and what went right. A huge advantage to this approach is people learn not only how to do things − such as bake cookies and cakes − but they also learn how to solve problems when things go wrong and this, in turn, helps them learn to apply creativity to tasks.

Letting people learn by doing allows them to be curious and experiment in ways that learning by rote or by following strict instructions does not allow. Learning by doing enables people not merely to learn, but to gain expertise. Following recipes precisely enables you to cook well. Experimenting, on the other hand, lets you learn how to envision the results if you were to modify the recipes. Eventually, you build the knowledge to create your own recipes.

Parents

As a parent, you can teach your kids to bake, fix things, draw and much more simply by giving them permission to try to do it themselves. Answer their questions, but give them freedom to make mistakes and to try and correct those mistakes. When things go wrong, do not berate your children, compliment them on their effort and ask them what they think went wrong and what they will do differently next time.

Then you need to let them do it. This can be hard. As a parent, you want your kids to do well and if you see them doing something wrong, it is tempting to help them and correct the mistake. But you must restrain yourself. Your telling your child she is making a mistake and correcting her is not showing confidence and trust in your child. It is a small blow to the self-esteem. Indeed, unless there are safety concerns, it is best to leave the room entirely and let your child get on with it.

If you tend toward perfectionism, you need to be careful. I recall once being at a friend's house when they were starting to prepare dinner. My friend's son wanted to help and so the father let him cut carrots for a stew. Once the boy had finished, the father proceeded to cut the carrots into smaller pieces. I have no idea why. Surely having slightly larger chunks of carrot in the stew would not spoil it; whereas cutting the carrot pieces smaller sent a message to the boy and that message was: "you did not do a good job of cutting the carrots". That may seem trivial, but it is a blow to the self-esteem and children's self esteem is fragile enough as it is. And, if the carrots truly were too small, a better approach would have been to say, "the carrot pieces need to be smaller for this stew, so could you cut them even smaller?"

So, let your kids work out how to do things by themselves, shut your mouth and sit on your hands if you are tempted to correct your kids' actions. It is hard, but you will be teaching your kids so much more by doing nothing than by interfering in their initial, probably clumsy, attempts to do things themselves.

Managers

As a manager, you can also train your team members by doing almost nothing. When you give people tasks, focus on the results you expect and grant them the freedom to experiment with ways to achieve those results. If your direct reports ask you to give them step-by-step instructions, ask them what they think they should do. And here is when it can be difficult. Your direct report might fancy an approach that is very different to your tried and tested approach. When this happens, you need to keep that tried and test approach to yourself and, unless the employee is likely to make a mistake that could have serious consequences, you need to let her try it out her way. Sure, she may fail. But more likely, she will make minor mistakes that she can learn from.

Indeed, sometimes an employee will suggest an approach that you are confident will not work. Unless the consequences of her approach are serious, let her do it her way, make mistakes and learn.

Ultimately, your direct reports will discover ways to accomplish tasks that may be different than yours, but are likely to be just as effective as − and possibly more effective than − yours. Moreover, by having made mistakes and corrected themselves, they will be flexible. When things do not go as planned in the future, they will be better prepared to cope and find alternative ways of accomplishing their tasks; whereas, if they had only learned a step-by-step approach taught by you, they would be less likely to have that flexibility and ability to solve problems without you.

The Importance of Keeping Your Mouth Shut

Not only is this a highly effective training method, it requires minimal effort on your part. Indeed, the biggest challenge to this approach is often keeping your mouth shut! As an experienced manager, it is tempting to correct people when you believe their method is not as good as yours. And, if they are new at it, their method probably is not as good as yours. But, keeping your mouth shut reduces your workload and enables your direct reports to learn by doing, making mistakes and correcting those mistakes.

Speaking of solving problems, you can and should use this approach when one of your direct reports asks you to solve a problem. Instead of telling her what to do, ask her what she thinks should be done. There is a good chance she already has an idea, but is not sure of it. Listen to her idea and, unless she is likely to make serious mistakes, allow her to try it out, even if you believe it is not the best solution to her problem.

If she does not know how to solve the problem or her suggestion will make matters worse, ask her questions about the problem in order to help her better understand it. Very likely this will lead her to devising a viable solution. Then then tell her to give it a try, even if you believe you know a better solution.

Your Great Solution May Not Be the Best

If you allow your team to learn by doing, you will inevitably be surprised from time to time when their solutions work even better than your solutions. Do not allow this to hurt your ego and do not try and berate your team member's better solution. That will only make you seem small and ensure your company fails to improve. Instead, compliment the team member and tell others about her clever solution. This will make you seem big, make her feel great, enable the company to grow and it will motivate others on your team. That's a big pay-off for a little magnanimity on your part.

Creativity

Allowing people to work out how to do things themselves, inevitably results in their making mistakes along the way. Often, those mistakes can be fixed with a bit of creative thinking and that is an added advantage to my lazy teaching method: it requires that people use their creativity which, in turn exercises and improves their creativity. If people simply follow instructions and are not empowered to experiment, they are much less capable of being creative when things go wrong.

Let Them Do It

So, one of the best ways to teach children and adults how to perform tasks creatively is simply to let them work out how to do those tasks themselves, even if they are inexperienced. If they fail, discuss what went wrong as well as what went right. In time, you will create experts with minimal effort on your part. Indeed, the biggest challenge you face with this technique is keeping quiet and letting people, whom you care about, make mistakes. But letting them make mistakes is doing them a bigger favour than not allowing them to make mistakes. Best of all, this approach to training gives you more time to focus on your own projects.

R103/20161123

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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium