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Buy Your Kid a Car

"When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." Mark Twain

When I was a young parent I knew pretty much everything about raising children. As time passed life and circumstances challenged many of those core beliefs. One of the most remarkable things about guiding kids from birth to adulthood is just how much the parent learns.

One of those key principles was that none of our kids would have a car in high school. Sure, they could use ours, but I felt owning a car would be a distraction that could lead to no good. After all, I wasn't allowed to own a car till college, and what was good enough for me.

Yet some of my friends in high school had parents who were more tolerant. We worked on their cars. A lot. Rebuilt engines, swapped transmissions, did the brakes, etc. I learned an enormous amount about machinery by getting my hands greasy.

When he turned 16 my son asked if he could buy an old VW microbus. Hey, I had one in my twenties and even lived in it for a year while saving for a boat. My initial negative response was met with a carefully-reasoned argument about how much he would learn, and that, after all, these were so old they'd probably never run. Then he said he had saved $1200 doing summer jobs so could afford this.

I relented. He bought two junkers with a little financial help from us, both 1977 vintage, both with seized engines, one with a bad transmission, and both with lots of other problems.

In 1980, living in an apartment, I realized there were three VW engines in the living room and porch, all of which I was rebuilding for friends and family. After finishing those I swore I'd never do another. Now we had my son's engines in the basement. The two of us spent a winter companionably rebuilding one, using parts from the other as well as new parts where needed (cylinders and pistons). We turned the two dead vehicles into one working one over the course of a year.

His friends all predicted failure; the bus would never be done. They saw those boxes of parts and couldn't imagine how a working engine could emerge from the chaos. I kept telling him it was just an engine; we were a lot smarter than it. Each part has a purpose, a place, each bolt gets a certain torque, and the pieces, one at a time, would come together to form a working whole.

Parents of teenagers know how hard it can be to maintain a civil relationship with those morons young people. This project bound us closer and kept us talking in a positive way.

Today Graham is a physicist. Last year he replaced the engine and transmission in his jeep. He has a mastery of the intellectual domain as well as the mechanical world. The bus project was a big part of what gave him the knowledge and confidence to understand this technical world and to fix things.

I'd like say, per the title of this piece, that all teenagers need this sort of experience, but the truth is that kids differ. My daughter never had the slightest interest in anything technical or mechanical. Despite the same opportunities, today she doesn't know which end of a screwdriver to hold.

Over the last couple of months I've gotten a lot of "kids these days" emails from readers, lamenting a variety of problems with youth who are victims of technology rather than competent masters of it. Some complain about young engineers with little mechanical aptitude, or an attitude that if Google can't return an answer quickly, there is no answer. I'm not keen on "kids these days" grumbling, as every generation has had the same complaint. Kids these days are, well, kids, and are still learning. In the workplace it's our job to mentor them. In the family we need to provide them with learning opportunities.

For me ham radio, TV repair, and the like were gateways into electronics. But working on cars gave me mechanical competence. The maker movement, Arduino, and the like are wonderful ways to teach young folks about modern electronics. I do think a rounded individual should also understand how stuff works in general. How a piston does its thing. How air conditioning works. The difference between torque and horsepower.

The teenage years are very formative. Try to give your youngster opportunities to develop mastery of this very complex world, to feel confident about breaking out a toolbox rather than calling a handyman or AAA when something goes wrong.

Published May 26, 2015