DIY: Are Dad Skills Obsolete?

James May is famous for the UK’s popular show “Top Gear,” but he also does a show called “Man Lab” where he demonstrates how to do different manly skills. May asserts that dads have stopped passing down DIY skills to their sons, and that men today are wimps who don’t know how to do basic home and car maintenance jobs that their forebearers did.

In a recent piece in The Telegraph, Jeff Howell articulates the other side of the issue, which is that our fathers and grandfathers enjoyed a distinct advantage that modern men don’t: their appliancess were actually fixable by the home handyman. Appliances and cars used to be made in a simple way, with the parts showing, and with instruction manuals that could guide you through the process. Today’s cars have engines that come sealed in metal and plastic cases, and are connected to electronic systems–they can’t be fixed by the average joe and have to be taken to a trained mechanic. Companies do this on purpose–if you can’t fix it yourself, you have to buy a new one, or get the dealer to fix it.

I can see both sides of the coin: Howell is definitely right that a lot of things simply can’t be fixed by the household handyman anymore. On the other hand, there are still some things that a man can do for himself, and if his dad hasn’t taught him how to do them, he should try to learn them himself. My dad didn’t pass on a lot of DIY skills to me, but I’ve been slowly learning them myself as I get older, and it’s a lot of fun and really satisfying.

Did your father pass down any DIY skills? If not, do you still think it’s important to learn them, and have you been trying to do so on your own?

Read the whole article: DIY: Are Dad Skills Obsolete? (@The Telegraph)

Found via Built By Kids

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Derek October 12, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Are “dad skills” obsolete? No. But neither are they the same skills as they were when Ozzy married Harriet. It’s problematic to think of “skills” as a static set of knowledge that doesn’t change over time.

I might not be able to do as much of the maintenance on our cars now as my did did when I was a kid. I’m not so good with cars, and my dad’s not so good with computers.

I take my car to the shop for oil changes because they know what other things to check to make sure that it’s going to keep running. And my dad brings his computer to me because i know what to check to make sure it’s going to keep running.

At the same time, there are some skills that every guy (or gal) can benefit from. There’s no reason we can’t understand how to flux and solder our own water lines, for example, if we need to put in a valve or an offshoot. Similarly, we should be able to replace/rewire an outlet or light socket without calling an electrician. These are skills my dad taught me that have remained useful because the technology hasn’t changed.

And they can be learned. That’s why I love “Ask This Old House.”

John October 12, 2011 at 2:05 pm

“dad’ skills are not, and never will be, obsolete. Perhaps the application of blowing out a leaking sunk carburetor float with your mouth isn’t useful, but the general understanding and comfort of how your car works, still is. Changing a flat tire hasn’t really changed that much since the 1950′s, neither has changing oil.

Ditto most home repairs. basic plumbing, wiring, and structural stuff is and will continue to be the same.

it sickens me to see (now the second generation) of guys who think an oil change is sipping a latte while siting at the Quick Lube, and who think changing a tire involves a cell phone and a AAA card instead of the jack and lug wrench you (should) have in your trunk.

But then again, I’m speaking from a background of growing up on a farm, where everything was fix it yourself. The average 9-year old doesn’t disassemble, repair, and reassemble a hydrostatic transmission from a combine, or adjust a fuel injection pump on a diesel engine. But some do. I think the “dad skills” from generations past were because everyone was within one generation from being connected to the earth. Now 90-95% of the population has never done anything themselves (grow food, paint house, fix car, etc). We’ve gone from do’ers to merely buyers.

Brent October 12, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Derek hits it on the head. I do know how to check and change fluids and some parts in my cars, and the same thing with computers and wiring and plumbing and so on. The skills today are different than those from yesteryear, but many are still around and some have been replaced with more relevant skills.

Tiffani Talbott October 12, 2011 at 2:21 pm

My father is extremely handy and I have helped in every project from pour concrete patios, reroofing houses, rewiring and dry walling the house, changing my oil, changing spark plugs, fixing the dryer, etc. His only teacher is experience and he has never shied away from a challenge. While I may not remember the exact details of each of those specific jobs, he taught me how to fiddle and brainstorm and that it’s ok to not always get it right the first time or ‘know’ what you are doing. However, with a little smarts and a lot of perseverance, you can save yourself and your family thousands by not having to hire out the job. Plus you can tweak each project in ways to make it personally user friendly, that a hired hand wouldn’t go the extra mile for.

Derek M. October 12, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Dad skills will never be irrelevant.

I also don’t subscribe to the philosophy that the classic dad skills aren’t still applicable today. I had to learn to hunt on my own, but my dad taught me how to build with wood. Not as used as you might think in NYC, but still applicable. I think the most important thing is the can do attitude. The ability that dad always had to find the right answer, no matter the question. As long as dad taught you that, you’re good to go. imho.

Jan October 12, 2011 at 2:22 pm

Yes, sadly, many “Dad skills” are obsolete — but the real lessons learned while learning those skills will never be obsolete. Things like patience with a task, following a project through to completion, thoughtful planning, pleasure in honing a skill, care and consideration for one’s tools and natural resources, pride in one’s workmanship and a spirit of curiosity, wonder and the joys of learning something new are among the most important things I learned while my Dad was teaching me to change the oil and paint the shutters.

Along the way, I also learned what personal confidence feels like.

I’m over 50 now — and I still paint the house (that’s now a sailboat) by hand, change the oil in the her engine and occasionally in the car. I like how it makes the young lads & lasses gasp to see me do these things myself. You see, I was Dad’s first-born and these Dad-skills were among the things you taught your children so they could grow up to be self-sufficient and strong — and it really didn’t matter that I was a girl!

From your loving daughter who still loves to work with her hands — Thanks, Dad. :)

Cameron Shook October 12, 2011 at 2:22 pm

I agree with what Derek and John said: “useful” skills have changed e.g., my dad calls me far more to help him fix computer/AV problems than I call him for structural problems with my house, but at the same time, my dad taught me more about plumbing, electricity, and basic carpentry then most anyone my age knows (I’m 20). Cars, well, my dad hated cars so he never taught me more than changing a tire; possibly because my grandfather (who I learned a lot of “dad” skills from) was so overboard about car maintenance.

Clint October 12, 2011 at 2:26 pm

My own personal motto in these circumstances is if someone put it together, I can fix it. This has gotten me through various projects, whether it’s building something, or fixing something that is broken. I was raised to be pretty self-sufficient, and being flat broke most of the time precludes the ability to call someone else to do the work.

Especially with the internet, if it’s a car problem, I can solve most problems by downloading a manual, for home repairs, I can pick any variety of YouTube vids from professionals. I don’t meddle with things that will kill me, like electricity, of course, but with a little practice, something like changing a starter or replacing a belt is cheap and satisfying.

My brother-in-law would be hard pressed to tell you if it’s righty-tighty or lefty-loosey, which is why he blows huge amounts of money on repair guys. I think that sort of attitude is endemic to the man-child generation, where someone else will fix your problems. There is a limit, and knowing when to ask for help is important, but for something as simple as patching a tire tube or unclogging a drain, you don’t need to call in the heavy artillery. Do it yourself.

Bill T. October 12, 2011 at 2:35 pm

My wife long ago bought me a sweatshirt that shows a guy with a tool belt and a pile of tools all around him, with the caption “Mr. I-Can-Fix-Anything” above it.

I think I have done a reasonably decent job of living up to that appellation. If I see something broken or not working as well as it should (except for things like complicated electronics, such as a flat screen TV or computer), I have to fix it.

Christopher October 12, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Sadly I grew up with a dad who had nothing to teach me. Believe me when I say I wish I was exaggerating. He was a railroad man, and in my earliest years he was almost never home, too busy working freight or whatever it was he did, and when he was home, the last thing he wanted to do was spend time with my sister or me. On the other hand, my mom’s father was a civil engineer who’s favorite hobby was carpentry, and at 85 years of age, he’s the DIY Grandmaster. So he passed a little of his knowledge onto her and she in turn would do minor projects around the house.

As I got older, she’d have me help, and without fail, anytime my mom wasn’t within earshot my dad would have some snide comment to say about it. Usually along the lines of “why are you even bothering with this, you guys don’t know what you’re doing, and this looks like a giant waste of time anyway. If it needs to be done, just hire a god damn professional.” Worst of all, he’s never had any interest in learning any new skills. When he’s on the clock at work, he might be one of the hardest working employees there, but the rest of the time, he’s such an inept lazy ass who needs everyone to do it for him, it disgusts me.

I might not be too skilled when it comes to DIY projects myself, but when the time comes to have a son of my own, I will be. If not, we’ll learn how to do it together.

Clarence October 12, 2011 at 4:28 pm

Technology helps as much as it may hinder. I’ve found ways to fix things on the internet that I would have had no idea how to before. I can fix almost anything and plan on passing the skills on to my daughter.

Eric Granata October 12, 2011 at 4:46 pm

My very capable dad did not pass on many of his skills. Something which he has expressed regret for. However, in recent years, I have done well learning car and home maintenance and repair from sources like YouTube. My father has also been a great a help with some bigger projects like converting our garage into a bedroom. Watching him work is magical.

Jason October 12, 2011 at 5:07 pm

I didn’t learn a lot of manly skills either, but one that I learned on my own was how to fix a computer. It’s what I do for a living and I will be sure to pass this skill along to my children. The PC has been around for more than 30 years. It’s time to add this to the list of man skills and stop acting like computers are some arcane internet box.

“When in doubt, google it.”

Shane October 12, 2011 at 5:11 pm

I grew up on a small farm, so naturally when things needed doing we (my dad, two older brothers, and myself) were the ones to do it. He taught us alot about how to do different things, we added an office to the side of the house, put in a front porch, added cement patios around parts of the house, landscaped areas around the house, reroofed our house, did yearly maintenance on our cooler. Since then I’ve worked at a facilities shop and really got to know the ins and outs of most everything besides mechanical and electrical, though I do wish I knew more about those better. The DIY mentality, I think, is one ofthe most important skills a dad can pass on, because as long as yo have that, you’ll figure out how to do it if you don’t already know.

John October 12, 2011 at 5:11 pm

“Dad skills” arent as much about learning how to fix a toaster or tractor- as much as it was how to look at something, analyze, and fix (or replace it). Being on a farm I imagine you are forced to fix your own stuff – but my dad understood that you can fix things – or pay someone else dearly to do it for you..

I was blessed by having a father that didn’t mind me watching what he was doing when he was fixing things – as well as having a mother that didn’t mind me asking questions and learning to cook.

Toasters haven’t changed as much as other things have – but the troubleshooting thought process is the same.

Your skills can change with the times – or they can stand still and you can ‘outsource’ your fixing of the computer or car to someone else. My cars have evolved over the years to where I have a cable to hook my laptop to my car for diagnostics – but many car repairs and tasks are still basic mechanical tasks. Changing a tire, oil change, clutch replacement – are pretty much the same as they were years ago even if the plastic covers on everything change the appearance.

One learns to research, read documentation, check forums online and it seems you can find information on almost anything these days. There are some great resources out there – it only take the willingness to learn and the time to invest. The technology has changed – but the through process has not.

Morgan Devere October 13, 2011 at 12:53 am

My dad has taught me a lot of things that I use often either on my own or that friends and even older generations make use of through me (I do stuff for them). Though I’m not much for automotive mechanics, basic carpentry, landscaping, plumbing, and electrical working I’ve learned from him; most of it is stuff that most people nowadays just call a specialist for. Much of that, in turn, can be a five-or-fewer minute fix and yet costs a week’s worth of wages to have someone else fix. On top of all that, doing stuff yourself holds a simple and inherent joy, and brings a notable amount of pride once you get it finished– even if no one else ever knows about it but you.

Another thing my dad has taught me to do is cook. Specifically, he’s instilled in me a knack for the practical art. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no master chef, but throw me some ingredients, simple seasonings, and a stove and I can at least present you with something edible. Now many of you may balk at this, but cooking a surprise rockin’ meal for your girlfriend (or any significant other) when she just expects drive-through take-out is one of the manliest things around. Plus, it tastes damned good, and you can eat however much you want (just make more of it to begin with).

That last related thing that I got almost solely from my dad is my work ethic. Not that I’m some sort of extreme-go-getter, I’m more along the lines of a passivist with regards to getting up and going, but when I do something I give it my all and I do it right. Unfortunately, it seems the trend these days (especially among my generation) is to make the most show for the job while doing the least work possible (make it look good with minimal effort, almost always at the expense of actual quality). I put my heart into what I do, and I sure as hell thank him for that.

J.P. October 13, 2011 at 8:01 am

I can see from the comments (I only quickly scanned them) that some say yes and some say no; like Jan the lessons from Dad skills aren’t obsolete, and only some skills are obsolete. Those skills would probably be, fixing a fridge or recharging the car’s air conditioning (all of which was possible up til about 20 years ago). But things like changing the oil, fixing a flat or rebuilding a set of porch steps aren’t obsolete; I would say that they are more important than ever during these hard economic times. Personally my father didn’t teach me a lot, but what I have learned from other men and women has added up to what I can say is what most men that were my age 50, 40 or even 25 years ago did on a weekly basis. I have to agree that yes, having someone change your oil with cheap oil at some walmart for under $30 isn’t bad, but if you are living off of unemployment changing your oil for under $15 or $20 can save you time, effort and mostly gas. For the most part “Dad Skills” won’t ever be obsolete for those that are practical and frugal, only for those people that want an easy answer/out and don’t want to put something into it will those skills ever be obsolete.

Jesse October 13, 2011 at 9:18 am

Are you OK with being an “Average Joe”? I’m not.

Maybe you can’t do all the dad things that dads used to, but that does not abdicate men from being useful. Develop other useful skills.

Joe October 13, 2011 at 9:41 am

One thing I would like to add is that many times when I have figured out how to fix something like my clothes dryer for instance the replacement parts are nearly as much as buying a new machine so why not buy new. Also when I bought my house I also got a new $2500 refridgerator and one year after the warranty ran out it stopped working and you guessed it we bought another. The people who sold us the house left an old fridge in the basement and it is now 32 years old and still works.

Jason October 13, 2011 at 10:07 am

The skills aren’t obsolete, the Dad’s are… (figuratively speaking of course)

The dad’s that take their job seriously will teach their kids what they need to know. I was lucky enough to be raised by a man that can do anything. He is a master carpenter that learned every trade he could make money at so he would never go hungry again. That kind of drive cannot be taught, but the skills can. He is always looking for the opportunity to show off a new skill or learn one from me, which is equally humbling and empowering.

I agree w/ John about the analyzing, the most important thing my dad has taught me is it doesn’t matter what you’re trying to fix, you’re ALWAYS gonna troubleshoot it, and those steps are almost always universal. My boss always asks me if I can “do” certain things that are out of my element. My answer is always, “Yeah, I can figure it out.”

I also was lucky enough to be able to work with my father-in-law for a few years, and seeing him in action at work gave me a whole new respect for him. One of his favorite phrases that I have taken from him fits into this conversation perfectly…

“If I can’t fix it. . . it ain’t broke.”

Rob October 13, 2011 at 11:04 am

My Dad and Mom own an auto-repair shop. I can tell you from a lifetime of being surrounded by trained mechanics that even they can barely keep up with the new cars. These things are designed with ‘planned obsolescence’, special codes, and special tools in order to force out the independent businesses. This goes very deep into issues with the current automotive repair industry (ageing non-digital workers, lack of certifications, ease is international transport, credit card usage, etc).
Still, I think that Mr. Howell has a great point. Things are designed to be ‘totaled’ today so that you have to go buy more.

Joe October 13, 2011 at 2:51 pm

Face it, many of the things we use are designed to be disposable. And even if you get the specialized tools to repair some of these things, you can’t get the parts. After getting the tools and taking an appliance apart, found what I need to be a very simple, but specialized part. Couldn’t get it locally, or mail order, and when I contacted the manufacturer, I was told there was nothing in the unit that was serviceable. When I explained that I had it apart and knew what I needed, they still refused to sell me the part. Unfortunately, my dad also passed along very little. For him, it was either beyond what he learned, or more convenient to go to a shop to have it done.

I have taken it upon myself to do the opposite. If I can do it, I will. I’ve learned by trial and error, watching what was done when I took something to the shop, and yes, google. But there is another hurdle that I’ve encountered. Local government. The lists of things that various permits and licenses are required for. According to the ordinances, I can’t do jack to my house without a permit. And if I get a permit, I have to have a licensed contractor. On the flip side, I can’t get a contractor in to do work because if they don’t have it inspected, they can lose their license. Even something as simple as an oil change requires disposal of the oil. It too is regulated and where I used to be able to just drop it off somewhere, I now have to pay a fee. And for the time and money I spend doing the change and disposing of the oil and filter (can’t throw that out in the trash anymore either), it’s more economical to go to the quick lube. Leaves me more time to do those little projects around the house that I can sneak past the city. Not to mention that my kids are thrilled when they get to help.

Trevor Walsh October 13, 2011 at 6:43 pm

There are a lot of good points here, I agree whole heartedly that the can-do attitude is the major important lesson. With that motivation, doing or learning what you need it within the realm of possible, not dismissed as something “people” can’t do. My dad liked doing some home repairs, but from a young age my parents knew I was going to build things, he took every advantage of getting me involved in the work somehow. Some of my earliest memories are of standing on a ladder stapling ceiling tiles into my dad’s basement office, I couldn’t have been more than 6. Since then I’ve tackled plumbing, electric, floor laying, tiling, deck building etc. I build furniture and teach shop as well.

I plan to do all of this with my son when I have one, it fosters a self reliance, and grounds a person into how the world works (much more simply than a physics, or calc class does, because it’s practical not theoretical) and work like this gives a great feeling of pride, I did that. I built that.

Michael October 13, 2011 at 7:56 pm

The funny thing is I’ve learned a lot of things on my own that Dad never taught me, and have gone on to teach the old man quite a few things. We’ve passed this tradition down to my son, and I suppose one day he’ll be teaching his old man a thing or three.

It’s pretty satisfying not being among the teeming majority of people who are completely baffled by this sort of thing. Crapper’s busted, so get out the toolbox, not the phone book. In fact, I wouldn’t really even know how to hire someone to get something like that done if I had to. It would be a mysterious new experience.

dennis October 14, 2011 at 9:32 am

The tasks will always change, but the confidence to try and learn as you go is what needs to be passed on. My grandfather was a wood worker so I learned lots of things from him when i was younger. But now i truly don’t remember most of it. What i do remember is that he did it, and therefore I probably can too. No one taught me to fix a car, but I read on the internet and can change an alternator or oil. I redid my whole kitchen by myself. First time I have ever laid tile or installed cabinets, but I gave it a go and used basic knowledge to do it. Confidence and the courage to try is what is important!

Dchub October 16, 2011 at 10:38 pm

My father didn’t directly teach me many “dad” skills but he did give me the desire to learn how to fix things on my own. My father always made an attempt to fix anything before having someone else do it.

My dad knows nothing about fixing cars or computers but his DIY mentality inspired me to learn about these things.

In my 12 years of car ownership I have never taken my car in for any service other than things that require expensive machines (ie. tire mounting, alignments).

Zack October 17, 2011 at 3:26 pm

Dad skills are not obsolete, however they change from generation to generation. Why do I need to know how to fix the engine on a car from the 1970′s when I drive one that was made in 2007? Someone who grew up in 1840 learned a different set of Dad skills than someone who was born in 1940 or 2010. It is good that our kids now learn how to work on a computer rather than on old cars because they will encounter computers much more often. Kids can still learn how to grow their own food, and most do know how but they don’t take the time to do it because their time is more valuable and can be better spent working at something else. I was talking to a next door neighbor who was in his mid 60′s and he was shocked to find that I didn’t know how to use a slide rule and that i was instead taught how to use a calculator. I challenged to him to see who could do a problem faster, me with a calculator or him with a slide rule. I won easily, then when he said any idiot could do it with a calculator we switched and I beat him easily again at a different problem because he couldn’t work the device and had to do it by hand. We cannot be scared of changes in technology and we must not be scared or closed minded to the changes in skills we will need to develop. We are not becoming a society of buyers we are simply prodicing different types of goods than we did 50 years ago, this change is not to be feared but rather embraced.

John November 8, 2012 at 2:47 pm

Came here to learn what “Dad Skills” are. My Dad taught me to ride a bike… I can’t think of another useful skill or quality he imparted to me. Survival, Hunting, Computers, Physical Fitness, Cooking, Ethics, Basic Science. I had to learn basically every skill I know without familial assistance. I have no son of my own, but one day I might have a family and it pains me to think that I might lack some of the hand-me-down knowledge that normal families tend to pass on.

What skills should a father teach their kids?
What did you most enjoy learning from your dad?

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