Joco Diversions

First with toys and then with tools, kids learn to master work

It was so far past my sons’ bedtime when the older one popped up behind me the other night that I’d have bet more than a couple bucks they’d both long ago fallen into dreams.

But there was the 11-year-old, wide awake and whispering for permission to do one more thing before he called it a day. He didn’t want to catch a little more TV. He wasn’t angling for the tablet to see if another kid who was up way too late had raided the village in his game.

Nope, he wanted to help me finish the job I was trying to knock out before I crawled into the bed where my wife was already asleep.

When a kid wants to stay up late to help Dad on the honey-do list and there’s no school to wake up for in the morning, that’s an easy “Yes.” Heck, even if there is school the next day, a “but” might slip out after the automatic “It’s way past your bedtime.”

So I handed over my paintbrush and showed the boy how to paint the storage bench I’d just re-installed in the mudroom, coaching him on clean strokes for a fine finish.

It was the second time that bench had been a father-son project. My dad built it when he came out for a visit several years ago, along with a shelf and row of coat hooks to make the room useful. I’m nowhere near the carpenter he is, but I pitched in wherever extra hands could help in the construction and installation.

Then one day my wife decided that the mudroom should be bright orange instead of yellow, and out everything went so I could paint. Now with my dad about to make another visit, it was time to re-install his bench and shelf and then spruce it all up with fresh paint.

Work being work, I wasn’t surprised that my boys had to be asked before they’d help sand the wood or tote pieces from the workshop to the house. They just got set loose into the freedom of summer vacation, after all.

But little by little I saw their interest swell. The younger one walked over to give his advice on whether the shelf needed an extra coat of paint, then pointed out a couple of spots on the back of the hooks that my brush had missed entirely. His big brother puzzled over the sturdiness of the bench until I showed him how careful hammering and some putty make finishing nails invisible.

Looking back, that midnight appearance of a boy reaching for my paintbrush in the still, dark house should have been easy to foresee.

Showing him how much paint to load onto the brush, where to grip it for the best control and how to keep his strokes smooth brought back memories of some of the first building work I did with him, and later with his little brother. Snapping toy bricks together on those projects was play, but the concentration evident on their little faces sure made it feel like serious business. The 11-year-old wore that look as he painted.

The boys learned to master their toy bricks by watching me build and handing me the pieces I asked for. One after the other, they didn’t take long to graduate to the builder’s seat, but they always let me stick around as a piece-picker and someone to talk to while they worked.

Now we’re doing it all over again with tools and lumber. The little one is still mostly my picker, handing me tools and keeping me company. In the mudroom a few nights back, the big one took a big step to managing adult’s work on his own.

After I handed him the brush I turned off the music I’d been listening to. He probably thinks it was so I didn’t have to raise my voice as I gave him painting advice. That’s true, a little. Mostly, though, it was because I still love being his someone to talk to any time he lets me stick around while he works.

Richard Espinoza is a former editor of the Johnson County Neighborhood News. You can reach him at