Adults don't always know best, and it's a wise parent who takes full advantage of this. I learned a lesson one day when the family car went only a short way down our street before the engine stopped cold. I steered to the side of the road and facetiously asked my 10-year-old son, ''What next?''
''I'll take a look,'' he said, so confidently that I stifled my urge to say no. He's a bearded father of two now, but I still see that slight little figure in shorts hopping to the bumper to raise the hood, fiddling inside, and then calling, ''Now try it.'' To humor him, I tried it. The car started and we proceeded with no further trouble. A measure of parental arrogance left me that day, and I began to accept the fact that size and age aren't necessarily good measures of competency.
Many times since, I've turned to the young with good results. One time we wanted a 15-foot asphalt walk removed, but not at the expense of hiring professionals and heavy equipment. In an afternoon of problem-solving and good cheer, two elementary school sons and their little brother ripped it out and wheeled away the heavy chunks.
Young people are often eager to tackle real challenges with real tools, to the point that confining them to make-believe materials is sometimes an insult. A friend once told me, ''I planned a long list of activities for my grandchildren this summer. Instead, they spent every waking moment in the garage next door, helping some college lads rebuild a Mustang. We never did a thing on my list! They said it was their best visit ever.''
To stimulate the development of young minds, adults can offer possibilities rather than plastic toys. One group of preschoolers, surrounded by toys, was bored and whiny. Then a clever mother grabbed a carton and filled it with wood discards from a builder's trash pile. The resulting structure was impressive in its architectural features, its artistic balance, and clever use of supplies.
Parents may want to share household problems with other family members, treating each person's suggestions courteously.
And we can swap roles gracefully. I received a new title when a fifth-grader relocated the television antenna. ''Here, 'prentice, hold this wire. Now hand me the hammer. OK, 'prentice, steady the ladder. . . .''