Our present home is one that was built in 1997, and we purchased out of logistical necessity in late 2007. What I subsequently found out was that we’re actually the fourth family to live in the house so that three families lived in it over the previous ten year period, for an average of three years and four months residency per family…in other words, it was flipped multiple times during the realty bubble of late ’90s to 2007. On the one hand, it’s got a nice layout and meets our needs but we’ve been encountering the flippers’ mentality for the past few months – make it look good, but don’t do shit otherwise. Fundamental work has been ignored and I’m running into previous jury-rig repairs that are creating issues when other repairs have to occur; when we first purchased the house – and it’s only a house until we make it a home, regardless of what the realtors say – I found to my amazement that the gas furnace had never been serviced since installation. When the gas fireplace in the family room died two years later, I found the same issue as we paid to get it operational again. So now multiple issues are occurring simultaneously and the repairs are potentially costly. So do we pay someone to come in or do I suck it up and manage as much of it as possible? And what does this have to do with the kids?
In a nation in which both the median family income and median wealth has declined in the better part of the last decade, the family budget really isn’t able to absorb the stray hits from home and auto repair that it could say, two decades ago (or even longer if you consider the way that the use of debt hid the real effect on living standards). We’re reaching a point akin to every ninth episode of Star Trek: Next Generation, in which Picard orders all power to the life support systems because he spent too much time reasoning with the unreasonable while they reduced his ship to wreckage. I swear to God, Picard could have worked for the SEC or the CFTC. Anyway, if families are now having to figure out more about helping the kids with education and taking on a greater burden in healthcare insurance and costs, let alone set aside for their dotage, there simply isn’t the amount to be paid out for every last little repair around the house. What this has to do with the kids is that they see Dad and Mom taking up the work and figuring things out.
Being a do-it-yourselfer requires not just a certain facility with working with your hands, but also a mindset that you’re able to both figure it out and adapt when the first approach doesn’t work. We’ve become a nation of specialists, with colleges graduating young adults with very specific skill sets and oriented towards the intellectual over the manual. Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame is probably the first person in a long time to take a crack at dispelling the notion that manual and physical jobs were beneath many Americans. That seems to have taken root and in tandem with the realization the money isn’t there, networks like HGTV and DIY have offered more and more shows to educate people on what has to be done. What I’ve seen in my own household is a growing interest in Pinterest for ideas on projects and links to sites that teach how to do them. This particular site has led to at least one handmade Christmas present and an ongoing effort to create glassware from old alcohol bottles that leaves my garage resembling a bootlegger’s storage unit. But while it’s frustrating on one hand to know that a section of the garage is given over to that particular project, understanding that an effort is being made to try something different makes the frustration infinitely more bearable.
We live in a culture of instant gratification and that mindset bleeds through to almost everything. Because I’m a decent writer – just saying – I’ve had parents ask me to help their kids with certain essays, as well as reading some of my own kids’ efforts. What is universal amongst the youngsters is the notion that their first effort is the one to be turned in and the universal response to my typical comment that the work was a decent first draft was a consistent disbelief that it wasn’t finished and presentable. Many youngsters don’t grasp the concept that something isn’t going to succeed on the first try and that they might have to re-group and try it a second, third and possibly fourth time and the same process holds true for many Do-It-Yourself household projects in which the person has little or no experience. If the kids are going to learn this, then as parents we might have to put ourselves out there and model that behavior; study plan schematics, go back a second or third time to attempt a repair, and give a serious effort to complete the job before we finally cave in and hire out to get the job done. There’s value in failing and learning how to try again. There’s value in demonstrating how to use the internet to study videos on how to accomplish a task that might have previously been subbed out to a repairman. There’s value in keeping track of the savings so that you can share it with the kids and put it in terms of the opportunity cost of how that money might otherwise be used. We undertook and finished a DIY backyard fishpond refurbishment – at Eldest’s insistence and assistance – that saved approximately $4000 off a professional’s quote, savings that are worth approximately a semester’s tuition at the local state university.
There are always kids who instinctively understand what has to be done in certain projects and how to use their hands. But for many, that understanding isn’t going to come if they spend six hours daily in front of a screen and it won’t come if they consistently see the parents picking up the phone for an estimate and appointment. When I began this article several days ago, I was looking at multiple repairs split between the house and the car. The first was on Eldest’s car and that’s one that the two of us handled together instead of farming out to a garage. The second will require a repairman to finish a job that I started simply because it’s in a summer heat attic and my middle-aged body gave up the ghost after more than four hours of effort, but at least the project is moved along far enough to save some of the labor costs. The third is one that I’m simply setting up for a professional since all of the separate literature that I read routinely mentions the prospect of significant bodily injury if performed improperly and y’know, that one’s just not worth it. It’s an imperfect process, but at least the kids are seeing that the effort is being made to keep the costs under control and that’s a lesson that they’re going to have to take to heart going forward.