The Benefit of a Small Person With Engineering Skills

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Skinny 11yo scrunched into the frame of a tv stand being assembled, using an R2D2 screwdriver to secure an inner screw.
They can crawl in the awkwardly-angled spaces. Photo by the author.

I love assembling IKEA furniture. Why not? It’s a building set, a more permanent version of LEGO or Lincoln Logs. It’s like completing a puzzle, but better, because afterward you have something useful to show for it. I love the sense of accomplishment, the sense of having Made and seeing that it is Good.

Apparently, for some reason, there are many people who feel exactly opposite. They say it’s tedious or confusing. They get frustrated and overwhelmed. I’m not sure why my husband hasn’t figured out that he should just immediately hand over anything with assembly instructions to me right off the bat. I guess he figures he ought to be able. After all, he’s the rational, physics-based guy. I’m the metaphorical daydreamer. But I guess there’s an aspect of visual-spatial thinking that has nothing to do with rationality.

Our son inherited both the rationality and the visual-spatial skills.

I could tell early on with both my children: there was a difference in the way they looked at things, different from other people and different from each other. They were both serious lookers. They had strong opinions about what they saw. But my daughter the artist reacted to color and design. My son noticed the way things fit together, the way they worked. He stunned me by helping to put together his little sister’s baby swing at the age of two. He received a set of child-sized wooden chairs for his third birthday and sat down to assemble them (with help) right in the middle of the party.

Series of three pictures of a 3yo assembling a wooden chair with the help of his grandmother, watched by a twelve-month-old wearing a yellow stacking ring on her wrist.
From flatbox to chair in one birthday party. Note his sister’s visual tendencies—the stacking ring is a bangle bracelet, obviously. For him the stacking ring was always a stacking ring. Photo by the author.

“He’s an engineer. He has an engineer’s mind,” I said. I felt a little self-conscious, wondering if I sounded like one of those parents who makes grand plans for their kids’ futures without taking notice of the kids’ actual desires, but I wasn’t. It was a pure objective observation. This is what my kid does.

So I don’t know why it surprised me the other day, when he came home from his grandparents’ in the middle of me assembling a TV stand. I had just left the room to show my parents something when he called from the living room, “I need a little help with this!”

“A little help with what?” we called back.

“Putting the TV stand together.”

To be honest my first reaction was jealousy. That was my TV stand to put together! Now he was going to have it put together (“probably wrong,” I thought irritably) before his grandparents even left. Then I laughed. Of course he was. What was I expecting, leaving something needing assembly right out in his presence like that?

When our guests had left, there was room for both of us on the TV stand assembly line. “Watch which way you’re attaching that, it goes…” I started to remind him a few times, but he needed no reminders. He did it instinctively.

“How about you put the knobs on while I get these rails in…. Ugh, I’m having such a hard time with these tiny screws….”

“Don’t worry, I got them,” he said, looking up from a completely secure rail.

“Okay, you get the rails in and I’ll put the knobs on,” I conceded.

Sometimes a screw needed a little more strength behind it, and I took over. Other times a screw had to be tightened from an awkward angle, but he simply folded his skinny self up inside the stand to attack it head-on.

Working together made that furniture assembly experience even more fun than it ever would have been alone. We’re going to pick up some bookshelves to match the TV stand later this week, and this time, I’m already planning to have my small but handy engineer at my side.

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