My fourth grader recently participated in his school science fair. To say that the experience was stress-inducing for our family is putting it mildly. To say that he was a willing participant who was interested in science would be a bold-faced lie.

I forced him to participate, which was my first parenting mistake. Even though he has historically only done the bare minimum amount of work necessary to make it to the fourth grade, I thought he might benefit from a new learning experience.

I foolishly envisioned my genius in a lab coat surrounded by poster-boards filled with scientific facts, beakers, and pie charts. I would be beaming on the sidelines while people oohed and aahed over his scientific theory. In my dream world, my son had a smile on his face during all of this.

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Fast forward to two weeks before the science fair and it was clear that my dreams would not become reality. Nothing had been completed, including the subject of the project. After several fruitless conversations that ended with my son shrugging his shoulders and saying, “I don’t know,” I chose his topic for him. Since his only true interest is baseball, I thought that the “Science of Pitching” would keep him attentive.

The focus would be the physics behind how the ball moves; the question would be how to make the ball move in different ways, taking into account gravity and force. I recalled from my days in elementary school that completing a school project of this magnitude required knowledge of the Dewey Decimal System and access to a modern set of Encyclopedia Britannica. With an iPad and the World Wide Web at his fingertips, I figured the rest would be easy. Once again, I was wrong.

According to the results of a 2003 study from Arizona State University that surveyed over 400 middle-school students, “research shows that participating in a science fair didn’t cause a significant effect on students’ understanding of scientific method and attitudes towards science.”

A week before the project was due, my husband and son spent a couple of evenings “studying pitches” on YouTube. Each night, I caught them marveling over great plays while producing nothing. The third night, my husband printed out diagrams of pitches that would, at the very least, look good on a poster-board. This type of slow progress (lead by overachieving parents) progressed until the night before the project was due.

My child’s role in the process can best be described in sports-terms as a “sideline participant.” The time had come to piece everything together and present the best poster-board and project possible. After dinner and activities, I found myself at 8:30 PM at the dining room table armed with glue sticks and stencils, and several articles and images that needed cutting. My son, who would usually be going to bed at this time, found himself faced with an incredible amount of work and a mother that was at the end of her rope. 

Admittedly, I felt guilty for letting things get to this point. Had my own procrastination and lack of interest in science or baseball gotten us here? Should I have been better about helping him be organized with his time and his work progress? On the other hand, wasn’t this his project? Isn’t it best to let him realize the hard way that hard work and determination will help him find success at the science fair and thus in life?

As we glued and cut and pretended to enjoy science at a frantic pace, I looked up at my child at 9:30 PM and realized that this whole façade that I had been desperate to create was pointless. He had dark circles under his eyes and he was not enjoying creating the project. Also, he hadn’t learned much outside of watching pitching video clips with his father. My husband and I had completed most of the project. I was now faced with the harsh reality that I could complete the project myself and be done by 10 PM or I could continue to work with my child, leaving him going to bed at 11:00 PM.

The thought crossed my mind that someone had to write on the poster-board. If I wrote it, the world would recognize an adult’s precision in the letters. Would the other parents and teachers whisper about us as they peered at his project? I didn’t want to be one of those parents who did their child’s science fair project. At the very least, I didn’t want to be one of those parents who did their child’s science fair project and made it obvious. I decided that he had to complete the project.

I looked at my son as he carefully glued a baseball onto his poster-board on the verge of tears. “Mom, I still have to take a shower and do my reading homework,” he squeaked.

“Listen, you waited until the last minute to get this work done, so you’re learning a valuable lesson,” I answered firmly. “This is called an ‘all-nighter.’ It’s what you do when you wait until the last minute and you have no choice but to forgo sleep and other obligations. You have to stay up as long as it takes to get this done.”

He looked back at me with horror and disbelief.

We stayed up and got it done together.

He did not win the science fair. The people that did win seemed to have “adult-like” precision in the handwriting.

While we didn’t learn much about science, we did learn a lot about ourselves. We learned that my son is a procrastinator who doesn’t have much interest in science. We learned that we, as parents, might be procrastinators as well. We also learned that waiting until the last minute taught us more than any science lesson could.

We knew from the earliest days of this child’s learning experiences that he would likely not be a scientist. When he set his timer for 10 minutes of reading at the ripe age of six, we knew that he was not the type of kid that would go “above and beyond.” Yet I signed that permission slip for the science fair, setting him and myself up for failure.

Parenting is not a science, but it’s interesting to look at our parenting choices as scientists would. Parenting is something that is learned on a case-by-case basis via trial and error and a measure of failures and successes.

Much of what we choose to do as parents has a lot to do with ourselves and our own egos. We knew that this child would not complete this science fair project on his own in a timely manner. Yet we waited and watched. We waited and watched, and instead of letting the experiment take its natural course into failure, we swept in and saved the day as modern-day parenthood has taught us to do.

Cause and effect is the lesson here. Now, going forward as parents, we have to be strong enough and smart enough to let the effect happen.