On Kids And School Projects

I am not a great parent when it comes to helping with homework or school projects. Now, I’m about 5 million times better than my Dad was – for all of his assets he had ZERO patience with anyone who was not on the same level of knowledge as he was. But I find helping with school work exhausting because I have to channel all of my energy into staying patient and present and reminding myself how miserable I was when my Dad “helped” me with school so that I can avoid making my kids experience the same misery.

So, for all practical purposes? I’m mostly hands-off parent. I help when they ask, I encourage them to ask, I’ll even make it easy and offer help sometimes if I can tell they need it, but most of the time they don’t want or need my help. I recently helped Wes study for social studies which is the first test I’ve helped him study for all year. I help Nikki with Math homework twice a week or so but that’s because she’s in an advanced math on the block system in a class of 30+ kids so she doesn’t always leave class with a solid understanding of a new topic. She just basically needs me to help her with the first of each type of problem on her homework, and then she’s on her own.

BUT PROJECTS ARE A TRICKY SITUATION.

I’ve parented for 24 years now, 19 of those years with a kid in a school, and I 100% promise you that most of the kids with the top/best projects from every assignment had an adult’s help. I’ve seen c-student kids who HATE school and science win science fairs. I’ve seen expertly crafted models and perfectly sourced researched projects from third graders. I’ve seen projects built from $40 worth of supplies and crafted using tools most kids don’t have access to. AND MY KIDS GO TO PUBLIC SCHOOLS! If you are at a private school where most kids have more financial resources I bet it’s even worse.

I’m just saying, when it comes to projects, I find myself bouncing around the frustrating dilemma between KNOWING other kids are getting TONS of help and getting graded and evaluated better because of it, and wanting my kid to be able to be proud they did it all themself.

But here’s the unhappy truth. Your kid can work their ass off on a project and do it 100% by themselves and not get any accolades for it because 10 other kids in their class had the help of parents. If you’ve ever walked the halls during a PTA meeting where classrooms display recent projects you know what I mean. It’s OBVIOUS who had parental help and who didn’t. Especially in the elementary schools.

And while I want my kids to be self-sufficient, I also want them to feel the joy of success after hard work sometimes and it is HEARTBREAKING when they come home with a “fine” grade, maybe even a “good” grade but no prizes or notes of excellence because Jimmy Joe’s parents basically did his for him and what do you expect the teacher to do? I don’t blame the teachers at all because you can only grade what you see, you can’t start quizzing every kid about how much help they got and even if you could, you can’t really PUNISH kids who have active/patient parents!

And there are some kids talented with projects like that all on their own, how do you separate the two?

So every time my kids have projects we try to stay on the “guidance” line where they just TELL me what to do or tell me the problems they’re having and I offer guidance. If I find an error or a fault with their plan, I’ll offer suggestions but they can still feel proud they did it themselves.

Two examples this year – Wesley had a Bottle Biography project where they had to use a 2-liter soda bottle to build a model of a Black American of Note. Wesley chose Mae Jemison as she has local ties. His ideas for construction were off simply because he didn’t know what was available. He also isn’t super dexterous at age 10 and it required some precision with hot glue. In the end I think it looked obvious that A) he had some help but B) that he still did most of the work himself. There was no perfection ANYWHERE but there was the suggestion of guidance.

But you know what? They had them all displayed and there were some there that were still PERFECT. And while he was proud, he was still disappointed that his wasn’t the BEST.

And that’s hard when you see the BEST and you just can’t imagine a 10-year old doing all of it themselves.

This week Nikki had to do a 3-D model of DNA. It had several criteria on the rubrick and so we basically searched Pinterest for examples and then walked into Hobby Lobby and made a few changes on design ideas based on things we saw on the shelves, and some changes based on aesthetics, but mainly we used other examples found as guides for supplies to buy.

Nikki needed me to hold stuff on the double helix while she glue, or vice versa if I was sick of my fingers getting burned – but for the most part I was just a human who had extra fingers she could use. “Hold that there,” type of stuff while she spun and glued.

The problem came with the construction of the base. It took us SEVERAL attempts to find a foam/glue combination to use that would hold up her very tall model. My suggestions did NOT work and we were in panic mode because the thing wasn’t standing on it’s own yet. She and I brainstormed and decided we could try two other methods so I went to the craft store while she was at school and that night we tested some stuff out and THOUGHT we found a solution. I offered to set the glue while she was at school the next day so it would be dry for her to finish assembly but BAM! It turns out the glue ate the foam and it all collapsed and so I had to quickly come up with a final alternative while she was at school b/c she she still needed to assemble so everything that afternoon so the base needed to be set for awhile for stability.

In the end, that final method I chose in a panic worked the best, but basically I had to do that without her and all I kept thinking was, “What would she have done if I wasn’t unemployed?” I think she would have just brought it to school unstable and gotten those points docked on the rubrick but MAN. The base was SO INSIGNIFICANT. Everything else she did was amazing and how sucky would that have been to get points knocked off because the base didn’t work?

Other than the base, she did everything herself and honestly, and when I came home from Wes’s swim last night and saw the whole thing put together? I WAS SO IMPRESSED. I don’t feel guilty about helping in a panic with the base, but I feel bad for kids who have those kind of problems without someone who can help. I mean, WHO KNEW E6000 glue would EAT FOAM?

But her project is going to get a better grade because she had a parent who could help in a crunch. And while there will 100% be kids whose projects were done entirely by their parents (there always are) there are also going to be kids who had NO help whatsoever and they are going to often get worse grades without any consideration of their resources at home.

And that’s not even considering how much this project cost me. Now, the teacher does give bonus points for kids who use stuff found around the house instead of craft stuff…so that’s an amazing way to counterbalance those kids who have parental wallets that can open at the craft store.

It’s just always a tricky thing…kids and projects. You want them to be successful but you want them to learn how to do the work themselves. And since there is no way to evaluate based on how much they did on their own because there’s no way to really know for sure (Let’s be honest, her project looks like it had way more parental help than just with the base. Some kids are going to think I did a lot more than I actually did.) the teachers are really not able to help with grading in any way without knowing 100% what the distribution of work was for every kid.

But man, as a parent, it’s a tricky path to walk. Especially when you see kids who don’t like school, never apply themselves, and suddenly walk in with perfectly crafted projects while your kid has burn marks on their fingers from their hot glue gun.

6 Comments

  • Carrie

    I am going through this exact thing now. My youngest has to do a bottle project of Albert Einstein and I have to try hard not to just do it for him!

  • Fraulein N

    No advice (not that you asked for any), but I remember my parents being frustrated about this too.

  • Ashley Lawrence

    I am 100% with you on this. Benjamin has had projects since 1st grade (he’s in 3rd now), and all along I tried to have him do as much of it as he could. But then we get to the Great Brain Fair and there are other 6 year olds with amazing projects on quantum physics, while he researched Cookies. That’s only a slight exaggeration. (And he really did research cookies when he was 6. It was awesome.) For the first 2 years I had to force him to do everything, and it was excruciating. But this year there was some pay off. He researched goldendoodles, and while I had to help him get started, he did everything else on his own. He designed the poster board, I helped him with spelling, but he decided what to write on the cards, I printed off some pictures for him but he cut them out, and did some other little art work. His wasn’t the most put together, but it was almost all his own work, and he was proud of it. I was proud of him, too. They don’t have grades in Montessori, so I’m glad that isn’t a pressure that we have to deal with yet. That’s why I assumed when he was in 1st grade that they would all be student-produced, but I was surprised at the high quality of many of them, and I was embarrassed for Benjamin’s. But he wasn’t embarrassed, and so I learned to embrace it, and this year I was really happy for him and what he was able to do.

  • Samantha

    My favorite quote: “But here’s the unhappy truth. Your kid can work their ass off on a project and do it 100% by themselves and not get any accolades for it because 10 other kids in their class had the help of parents.”

    When my daughter was in kindergarten, they did a 50 days of school project where they were supposed to put 50 things on a poster. I bought a poster from the Dollar Tree and she drew, let’s say, 50 stars on the front of it by herself with marker. I can’t remember anymore what she drew on it, but it was something like that – simple and achievable by a five year old even though it did take her some time. I remember feeling proud of her counting skills and how diligently she worked on it.

    All of the other posters, and I mean all, were straight off Pinterest: 50 pompom gumballs in a gumball machine obviously not drawn by a five year old, 50 plastic dinosaurs hot glued on a palm frond back ground etc. You get the idea. My daughter’s poster was SO, well, crappy looking compared to all the others. But I knew she was the only one who’d actually made her own. Not that it mattered. There was no credit or accolade for doing it herself; instead she ended up feeling embarrassed (without understanding why – because she was 5!). That was my first lesson in what assignments are all about, at least at our school. They don’t care if parents help. In fact, I believe that is the intent.

    She’s in fifth grade now and I still try to get her to do as much of each project by herself as she can, but I also know what she’s going to feel like holding her project up in the class photo if it doesn’t meet a certain standard.

    I’ve come to accept the culture of the school in that regard. At least they don’t expect us to give outlandish gift/goody bags to every student for every holiday like her preschool did. Now that was a whole different game.

  • Beth Edwards

    You are totally on the right page on this. The child should do as much as possible. You might give them s a few ideas ans make sure they are headed in the right direction. I think a conversation about how some parents help a lot, but that they arent going to learn that way. Also talk about how some kids that usually not good or interested students could do a great job because they are great at projects or building things. Praise them for what they learned and maybe have a special treat like a cookie, or donut or a trip to starbucks planned for after the PTA meeting Keep doing what you are doing- Its the right thing. I have a great niece in private school. Because of the nature of the school, with lots of group projects and experiential learning, I am guessing that the parents get it. M<y brother usually ends up being the Grandpa helper. When she was in second grade, they built a HAM radio keyer and she learned Morse code. I am guessing he cut the wood with both holding the saw and that she painted it herself. Many times all a parent has to do is to start the task and the kid can take over.

  • Ali

    One of my son’s teachers actually solved this issue, at least from my perspective! The bulk of the layout, assembly, and design work for projects GETS DONE AT SCHOOL. She blocks out time and they work independently, and then they have the option of doing more research or whatever at home, but the kids do the work and it’s just the best.