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September 1, 2003

A friend had her college-bound son take the R.A.T. — Real-world Aptitude Test; he got 50%. She thought she might have failed as a parent. I thought she did OK, really, since it appears that half of it stuck.

In any case, it was a short R.A.T. out of a newspaper. The real R.A.T. comes in a book, which the library has just acquired: “The RAT: Real-world Aptitude Test: preparing yourself for leaving home.”

It’s more than the test, of course. It has answers. It’s a cousin to books like “Life’s little instruction book” and those omnibus home economics books such as “Household hints and handy tips” by Reader’s Digest and “Yankee Magazine’s living well on a shoestring.”

The back cover lists many of life’s common stumbling blocks, beginning with “managing money” and then “sex.” So you know it’s a practical book.

The book’s hook is the test, which parents may enjoy taking with their kids. It’s one way to bring up various subjects without coming off as didactic.

Some of the information is practical, even essential, while some might simply serve to save you embarrassment at a party where they wonder about such things as “what are the three most populous countries in the world?”

I guessed China, India, and Indonesia, but the U.S.A. actually beats Indonesia for third. You might not care about this if you’re still pondering the instructions for hammering: “Begin by holding the nail with the thumb and index finger …”

Personally, I prefer to hold the nail between two fingers, palm up, as I might hold a cigarette if I smoked. I don’t know if this is an acceptable pose for smoking, and the R.A.T. doesn’t go into it.

But it does quiz the test taker about finances, cooking, health, household skills, etiquette, dancing, employment, religion, and so on.

Young people are often sophisticated and ignorant in equally surprising doses. This test might prove a painless way for parents to examine their children’s savvy about such matters as the real effects of alcohol and drugs, about risks and consequences of sexual activity, about simple rules of safety when driving either short or long distances.

The book touches on the realities of etiquette and friendship. It’s hard to avoid every painful lesson, but that’s the goal of almost every parent I’ve known.

The test is divided into several sections with appropriate headings: the basics, things worth knowing, things it’s risky not to know, things to give you an edge, improving your quality of life. The bulk of the book discusses the answers.

The definitive packet of essential knowledge has been sought by parents and teachers throughout time. In reality, that packet changes, despite what’s claimed by all the little books, such as “All I need to know I learned in kindergarten.”

If you step back, and back again, far enough, you can see similarities across time and cultures, but at any particular time and place, the details matter. Hence, the apparently arbitrary questions about our nation’s per capita national debt, and gestures considered rude in other societies, and the odds of winning the lottery.

It’s not my style of book, but it’s eminently browsable. I like the inclusion of civility, friendship, family, as well as care of one’s own person. There are fundamentals, after all.

I’m dying to share a marvelous statement of one such fundamental, by Jack Kornfield: “Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past.”

You could live well by that one alone.


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