Get a grip

Sometimes, when working around the house -- doing plumbing repairs or tuning cars or skinning game -- you'll find you simply must have an extra set of hands.

You need someone to hold a stake while you hit it with a hammer. Or someone to point a flashlight. Or someone to steady a metal pipe while you strip its threads.

Parents often enlist their children for this help, but the results of such collaborations are mixed, at best. Let's look at the positives and negatives of using your kids as that extra pair of hands:

The Positives:

--You can get the job done when it might be impossible without assistance.

--Children learn from watching you, and one day might attempt similar tasks themselves.

--Kids become familiar with tools.

--A successful undertaking can raise you in the children's estimation because they'll see you as "competent." For a change.

--Working on a project together provides that all-important "quality time" with your children.

The Negatives:

--Children learn from watching you, and one day might attempt similar tasks themselves. You don't need your 10-year-old trying to fix a toilet, unless you want an indoor swimming pool.

--Kids become familiar with tools. They'll regularly "borrow" from your toolbox. Your tools will go missing. Forever.

--An unsuccessful undertaking proves you're just as incompetent as they always thought.

--Working on a project together gives the child an opportunity to learn many new cusswords when things go wrong. When these words are repeated at school, the parent will be blamed.

While some children are natural grease monkeys who can't wait to get started, most kids don't want to be recruited as extra hands. They're too busy playing video games.

To escape such recruitment, children develop a "learned helplessness" to frustrate parents. For example, a dad who's working under a car may ask the child to stand nearby and hand him tools. The resulting conversation goes like this:

"Hand me that socket wrench."

"Here you go."

"That's a regular wrench. I need the socket wrench."

"Oops. Okay, here."

"That's a crescent wrench. I said socket wrench, socket wrench."

"My bad. Here."

"A monkey wrench? What's the matter with you? Are you on drugs? Why not just hand me a hammer?"

"Here you go."

"I didn't really want a hammer. I want that bleepity-bleep socket wrench that's lying right there at your bleeping feet!"

Eventually, all the tools are under the car with Dad, within easy reach. He doesn't need that extra set of hands anymore. He tells the child, "I hear your mother calling you."

Sometimes, the helplessness is not learned; it just comes naturally. When I was a kid, my father regularly worked on our cars. My job was to "hold the light." I'd point the flashlight right where he showed me. But holding the light is boring. My attention would wander, as would the flashlight beam. Dad spent more time yelling about the light than doing actual repairs.

Invariably, after an hour or so, he'd hear my mother calling.

(There was also that time when I was behind the wheel and he was under the hood and he said, "Wait," and I thought he said, "Hit it," and I cranked the ignition and the engine fan nearly cut off his arm. But that's another story.)

In conclusion, parents should think twice about involving kids in household projects. The results might not be worth the headaches.

One exception should be noted: If the repair involves a computer, you should immediately put the nearest teen-ager in charge. Teens know more about computers than you do. Trust me.

You can always hold the light.

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