Finding the Right Level of Parental Involvement

I really enjoy the Pinewood Derby. In fact, my level of enjoyment is probably greater than that of my children. Add the fact that I like to work with my hands, and you have the classic recipe for an over-involved parent. Yes, I admit I have been guilty in the past of doing way too much work on my children’s cars.
By contrast, I have seen cars at our weigh-ins that were clearly built by a younger child with little to no parental involvement. Generally, these cars place poorly, sometimes not even reaching the finish line.
I believe that neither of these extremes is the appropriate level of parental involvement. Building a car is a great opportunity for a child and parent to spend time together. Opportunities to interact with your child are too few and far between to let one slip away.
So how much should a parent be involved? I suggest that parents should serve mostly as a coach, allowing their child to do as much work on the car as he/she can physically and safely accomplish. Clearly, the level of involvement must vary based on age and physical capabilities. For example, my 12-year-old son’s latest car was built on his own with only some coaching from me. He got frustrated a few times, and when he did I showed him a different way to hold a tool, clamp his car, hold the can of spray paint, etc., but he did the actual work. On the other hand my 9-year-old daughter also built a car. She did a large majority of the work, but I helped set up the tools, and assisted when she needed a little extra muscle power and technique.
How can you most effectively be a coach to your child? There is no one answer to this question, but here are some ideas that might be beneficial to you.
A few years ago I asked one of my younger children what they wanted their car to look like. I believe the response was an ‘elephant’ (or some other large land mammal). I don’t know about you, but making a car look like an elephant would be an impossible task for my child or myself! So instead, I sketched out some possible ideas, and fairly quickly we had a design that was much more practical. The point is that children often have unrealistic expectations of what they can create given their (and your) skills, the limitations of the car dimensions, the time remaining to the race, and the sophistication of your household tools. So here are a few ideas to help you and your child arrive at a reasonable
– Dig the Matchbox/Hot Wheels cars out of the toy box and find an interesting design. Then sketch the profile of the car on paper, simplifying it where needed.
– Have your child sketch a rough drawing of their ideas. Then work with them to make it practical.
– If your child wants the car to represent an animal or other complex object, suggest building a flat and thin car with a plastic animal(s) or object fastened on top. This is much easier and will likely satisfy your child. For example, a few years ago my oldest son wanted to build a ‘rocket car.’ He ended up building a ‘rocket carrier’ using a very small rocket from the hobby shop (see the picture at: ).
– Look on the Internet for car design ideas. The links below have a large assortment of pictures.
Shape N Race Derby
There is also an assortment of cars on our web site at Maximum Velocity!
Children generally want to skip the ‘boring’ steps and get right to attaching the wheels. But to get the best results, the building process should proceed in a step-by-step manner. Coach your child to take one step at a time. The resulting car will not only end up nicer, but your child will begin learning the valuable skills of organization and patience.
Training experts tell us that people learn much more quickly by performing a task themselves, than by watching someone else perform the task. So, if your child is unfamiliar with using a tool (you can assume that your child is unfamiliar unless you have previously shown them how to use the tool), place their hand(s) on the tool in the proper position, and put your hands on top of your child’s hands.
Work with your child, using your hands to guide and add a little muscle power. This is especially useful when a younger child is sawing. To saw along a line takes a certain amount of strength and technique, and young children can become frustrated very quickly. By adding your hands, your child will not only be involved in creating the car, but they will also become better at working with their hands.
Kids generally don’t like to sand (I don’t blame them). But to end up with a nice paint job, the car does need to be virtually smooth. In the past, my kids would sand for a minute or two and then come to me and say, “Daddy, is this enough?” I would tell them no, they would go back to sanding for another minute, and the process would repeat many times over.
Then someone shared with me an amazing technique. Take a pencil and scribble on all of the surfaces of the car that need to be sanded (lightly on surfaces that are almost done, and heavily on very rough surfaces. Then tell your child to sand until all of the pencil marks are gone. At my house, this eliminates a lot of whining!
If left up to my children, all of the work would be done on the night before the race. Although last minute jobs do occasionally perform very well, this is not the best recipe for building a nice car. So, instead sit down with your child and write out a simple schedule. For example, if there are 4 weeks before the race, write down what needs to be done in each of those 4 weeks. The schedule might be:
Week 1 – Design and rough cut
Week 2 – Shape, sand, primer coat of paint
Week 3 – Final coat of paint, prepare wheels and axles
Week 4 – Attach weight, lubricate, attach wheels, and align
If your child is a noted procrastinator, a daily schedule might be appropriate!
Good luck in coaching your child. When you get the urge to jump in prematurely, put your hands behind your back, grit your teeth, and count to 20!
From Pinewood Derby Times Volume 5, Issue 13
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