Science fair season, a lesson in hands-off parenting

The winter season often includes school science fairs for many elementary school students. The annual science fair offers a perfect chance for parents to experiment with how hands-off they can be when it comes to letting kids prepare projects on their own.

Lisa Suhay
Robert Suhay helps his son Quin cut a piece of wood for a science fair project, a "true mirror," outside his home in Norfolk, Va. on January 10, 2014.

It’s science fair season at elementary schools around the nation and while parents may be tempted to rush in and take over the project to "help" their kids, they should resist or risk losses far greater than a first place finish. 

For the last 10 years (about the time my oldest son reached science fair age) I have watched parents lose their minds because they were less concerned with how the official would judge their child’s project than how other parents would score them.

Long before the officials check out the projects, parents are unconsciously judging themselves and their parenting against others based on how good their own child’s project looks.

During my own elementary school days, I was always the kid running into the gym or cafeteria where the fair was setting up at the last minute with three cups of dirt containing the beans I forgot to plant months earlier and a ratty piece of poster board with hand written information that slanted up to the right like a cursive mountain.

At age 7, I experienced the humiliation of forgetting my science project completely and having my dad swoop in and take it over in the final hours before it was due. Thanks to his skills it looked like a Wall Street boardroom presentation, and I was disqualified.

Therefore, I tend to be hands-off with my sons’ projects as much as possible.

When my son Quin, 10, needed to cut a piece of wood into a triangle for his science fair display, my husband helped him cut it safely.

I was so worried Quin would be disqualified for that I finally stepped in and asked him to inform the teacher and judges that his dad had cut the piece.

His project poster now has a materials list that reads: “3 mirrors (the Dollar Store), poster board, 30-inch piece of wood, screws, yard stick, cool patterned duct tape, and 1 father.”

“Measure a 90-degree triangle and draw it on the wood. Then, this is where you need to use your dad to cut the wood to make a triangle,” Quin added to the procedures section of the poster.

For me, parenting is my life-long science project involving two species: what I will consider the proverbial “ant” parents and “grasshopper” parents.

Here’s a breakdown of my two-point hypothesis for the experiment I have been conducting over the past 20 years: 

  1. “Ant” parents have “grasshopper” kids (and vice versa). 
  2. It ALWAYS rains on science fair project delivery day.

By nature I was born a “grasshopper,” and it so happens I married another “grasshopper” like myself. Then came the four variables in the experiment, our sons, now ages 20, 18, 14, and 10.

Becoming a mom taught me how to cheat my “grasshopper” roots and at least act like an “ant” organizationally. It also taught me how to lift 100 times my base intellect in problem solving.

Over the years my hypothesis has been largely proven correct. All four of my sons exhibit primarily “ant” qualities. Son #1 was born an “ant.” Son #2 fooled us until college by acting like a “grasshopper” who tested my ability to help him fix anything in under 24 hours. But he morphed into a "fire ant,” devouring his work freshman year of college. Son #3 is an all-out “ant” never missing a project deadline. Son #4 has Aspergers Syndrome and can only survive in an organization-rich environment. He’s my “Super Ant.”

The one true constant that has happened each and every time one of my kids had a project to bring to school, especially on science fair day – it rained. Today is Quin’s science fair deadline and it’s teeming out there.

I admire my "ant" sons and those like them. I always wanted to be a planner. I tried but it seems the only deadlines I am capable of making are those that involve writing.

Over the years I have watched “ant” parents in admiration as they swarm into the school auditorium on science fair project delivery day in neat, organized, confident, and of course wet (from the annual downpour) lines.

I have also seen many an “ant” parent go into Tiger Mom mode berating their kids for lack of planning and then go all Martha Stewart on the project posters.

Male “ants” (and even some “grasshopper” dads) I know head right into the Jack Bauer zone, shouting the classic line from the TC drama “24,” “We’re running out of time!” as they push kids to complete projects faster, better, smarter etc.

As I looked around the room at all the other tri-fold posters I wondered if Galileo’s parents or Einstein’s ever took over their school projects, or if that’s just a new school development.

If the parents of the great scientists did butt in, did it help or hinder the final product?

The rule of thumb for project intervention should be to step in and help if it means protecting the child from losing a digit, but only the kind that you put gloves on and not the ones on a score sheet.

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