I discovered recently that pinewood derbies are really popular. This probably seems like non-news to most of you, but as the mom of young kids (and a single mom, to boot), I wasn’t aware of the popularity of this event. But pinewood derby is a Big Deal.
And it can be a lot of fun. I mean, what little kid doesn’t love a race? Especially when his or her own creation is competing for a prize? It’s adrenaline, it’s speed, it’s rapturous.
But I’m going to be a wet blanket and say I don’t like it. Designing is fun. Creating is fun. Decorating is fun. And even racing is fun. I’m not denying any of that. But can we all just agree to admit that it’s not about how much time and work the child puts into the car but about the time and work the parent puts in? At least up until a certain age, the average kid is going to make an average car. Only when the parent steps in to make suggestions, buy accessories, and soup it up will a car actually have a chance of winning.
I admit I didn’t want to be involved in the pinewood derby from the very beginning. I felt overwhelmed, and the way things came together, I felt as though I was just expected to know what to do: where to get the wood, how to saw it, how to add wheels, what paints to use, how to get it a certain weight, how to make it fast. When I tried to talk to other moms around me, they had all done it before and just talked to me as though I was either stupid or crazy for not having a clue. It was weird because these same women were usually friendly and kind, but they obviously just couldn’t fathom my complete ignorance of this activity. It was this condescension—unintended though I know it was—that first gave me a bitter taste in my mouth. I’m not stupid. I’m an intelligent person, have a college degree, have assisted in surgery, and have only not gone on to grad school because I have no interest. I understand the basic laws of physics as much as the next layperson.
But I’ve never worked with my hands, and I know absolutely nothing about speed, aerodynamics, or wood. I have never in my memory used a saw, especially a power saw. I have sanded wood maybe once or twice. I have never painted wood that I recall. And when people say “weights,” I think of dumbbells. I was told to watch YouTube videos, which is all well and fine, but some people don’t learn well from watching videos.
To be fair, our leader planned a few building sessions to help not only my son but also other kids complete their projects. She was magnanimous and helpful. But when you’ve got that many kids and that little time, everything can’t possibly get done. This year I sat entirely in the backseat, only watching while my son picked a design, got the wood cut, sanded it, and borrowed paints to make it pretty. I watched while someone else’s dad put the wheels on and critiqued the car. Someone else did all the work.
But here’s the thing: my son couldn’t have done any of it without another grown-up. (In his case, it took three of four.) People had to pitch in because I was taking the backseat. And they’re busy people who had their own kids’ cars to worry about. The most they could do is make sure my kid had a car. They couldn’t be bothered about its design or its racing potential. While I’m super grateful to them for making sure my son had a car, I also understand that he can never win unless he has one adult who gives his or her all to make it happen.
The kids who actually won their races (at least in the younger grades) all had huge parent/guardian participation. That’s just the truth. And they had all raced before, so their parents had experience as well. So the competition was really about how great the parents/guardians were rather than about how much work the kids put in. This just doesn’t seem right to me.
Granted, they don’t compete for money, and each car wins some type of prize. That is completely awesome, and I love that. But as far as the actual race goes, I don’t like it. I don’t think it makes sense. What makes sense is the kids making their own vehicles—or group vehicles—completely by themselves and using all the same materials and components. Or not having a race at all, just a fun building experience with maybe a contest for creative design—but all building done together. That way it would be about what the kids are doing rather than what the parents are or aren’t doing.
So unless all work on the cars is done together as a group, with each kid getting equal help and the same suggestions from leaders, I don’t think we’re going to participate in the pinewood derby. My son needs to know that he is not less just because his mom can’t make a race car. He needs affirmation, and if he competes, I want him to compete on his and only his skill.