Help! My child is mechanically inclined, but I am not

My problem boils down to this: I have no mechanical inclination whatsoever, but our 5 year old son (thank heavens!) does, and it extends to cars. He’s always asking me to open the hood and wants to know how everything works (“Dad, what is that belt doing?”). I want to encourage this sort of inquisitive thought process, but not knowing anything about cars can’t really “show” him much about our 07 Hyundai Accent’s inner workings. This leaves him asking more questions, and me slightly embarrassed that I can’t answer them. So, if anyone out there has ideas of simple projects or ways to illustrate how an engine works that even I can learn in order to quench his thirst for automotive knowledge, I’d love to hear them. Thanks in advance!

Books. Lots of books on how cars work. The bookstore should help here.

Considering his age, I’d suggest also models from a hobby store. There are models of automotive engines and systems such as tha “Visable V8” that allow him to build see-through models of various systems. You can probably find them on the internet too. Perhaps if you could build these models together you too would learn.

Lots of toys with operating systems. Also toys that present princiuples of physics in an age-appropriate way. You should be able to find these things on educational supply websites.

These next years will be golden opportunities for him to learn. Bury him with things from which he can. Don’t push him, but give hom every opportunity.

You can read the books, too, and explain the car to him. The public library should have several books on basic automotive technology.

Get him a small set of tools to start. An old lawn mower engine cleaned to remove all old gas and oil. Let him take it apart and put it back together. With you watching. Teach him to lay out all the parts in order. I did this when I was that age. Only I did it to my dad mower. Boy was he mad! Oh I did not keep any parts in order and out of the dirt. LOL

@thesamemountainbike made a great suggestion regarding the “Visable V8” model. I think Ravell made it if they are still in business, perhaps they still do. When you put it together you’ll understand how a motor really works since the gears turn and pistons move etc. The one I had as a kid even had little lights for spark plugs so you could see how it all gets “timed” properly.

At 5 he is likely too young, but as a project with you building it I think it would be great. You will learn a bunch too. Father and son learning together, sounds positively “Leave It To Beaver” ish.

You can consider this another vote for getting a Visible V-8 model, if they are still available. I recall that, by building one of those models when I was about 10 years old, it really helped to solidify my knowledge of how an engine works.

As Uncle Turbo suggested, building this with your little son will make both of you more knowledgeable, as well as providing a great bonding experience. Just make sure that you have a “secure” place to set up the model and its parts for the…several days…that it will likely take to build it. You don’t want the cat to scatter the hundreds of little parts!

Edited to add:
I just checked, and they are selling the kit for under $50, with free shipping.
It does appear, however, that the kit no longer includes the little electric starter motor that turned the engine. The illustration shows a hand crank attached to the bell housing at the rear of the engine, so the electric starter is now apparently a thing of the past. This may also eliminate the “spark plugs” that lit up sequentially (actually tiny light bulbs) in order to show the cylinders firing, but even without these features, you will both learn about the function of the valves, pistons, crankshaft, camshaft, pushrods, and connecting rods.

This would be better, it a visible 4 cylinder and is battery powered like the old Revell kit used to be, and its less expensive.

That 4-cylinder model does look to be more relevant, as that model engine has an overhead cam and a timing belt. This will teach a youngster about engines that are…more contemporary…than the old pushrod V-8 used by the Visible V-8.

A book I suggested to someone on these pages before: The Reader’s Digest Complete Car Care Manual". It is a blue-covered landscape (wider than tall) book. It has a large section explaining how all the different systems in the car work with illustrations and language that are easy to understand. It is out of date in spots, but a lot of the basic stuff hasn’t really changed that much.

Thanks to all for a solid set of recommendations!

Another recommendation would be if you have a friend, brother, brother in law, uncle, cousin, or someone else that might be very knowledgeable about cars, and maybe you can have that person show you and your son some basic things.

This will help him understand that even though good old dad doesn’t know the answer to everything in life, you aren’t afraid to ask someone who does, and they are always willing to help.

This will help him in the future keep having an inquisitive mind, and searching for answers.

I know when I was little, I couldn’t ask my dad anything about cars, but I had several neighbors who were always willing to let me “assist” and ask questions when they were working on their cars. When I was older, I actually helped, on quite a few brake, suspension, radiator replacement, and other tasks, that they undertook.


This should help.

In addition, you might want to hang “exploded view” drawings on his bedroom wall like the ones in teh attached link. I’ll bet he’d figure out a lot as he grows just by looking at them.

How about getting a Haynes or Chilton Manual for your car?

Bladecutter has a great idea about teaching the ‘‘research chain’’. A great life lesson for more than just cars.

The other’s ideas about books and models are also dead on in the ‘‘research chain’’ as well.
And show him THIS posting as one of your research tools.
"I don’t know now, but here’s several ways we can find out’’

My son and I took apart almost everything that was broken down. Tape players, VCRs, super hero toys, robots, lamps, washers, dryers, trailer jacks, cordless and corded phones, ovens, mixers, etc.

  • " but what if we break it taking it apart, dad"
    “it’s already broken and we’ve already conceded we’ll be buying a new one. So maybe we can learn a thing or two about it. 1- how it’s supposed to work, 2- how we might fix it, 3- what happened to break it, and 4 - what to do different to not break the next one.”

listen to to “car talk” with him on the radio there our some good tv shows on late morning on the weekend like the power block i think is on USA or TNN and the Speed channel. model building is a lot of fun and you can see how parts on a car go togher just rember this is about having fun and spending time togher.

Here is another suggestion for you, buy a go cart. Of course, you will need a safe place to drive it, such as a go cart track or a park that allows go carts. A small cart with a low powered lawn mower engine should do. He can learn to drive and have something to take apart that is simple to reassemble. And it will be so cool to him, the bonding that will occur will be worth all the expense and effort.

@Ken Green That is the way I think everyday. I just cannot get my son interested yet.

All great comments on how to bring the next generation into the world of figuring it out. Not necessarily cars but everything from light switches to lawn mowers to.

Any of those hands on construction kits,teach him about the simple machines,tell about the basics of Thermodynamics, inertia,etc,A bright kid that age will absorb more then you realize.Encourage but dont overload-Kevin