Raise your hand if you hate the science project

boy doing science project

Here are some things that teachers hope that kids will learn from the science project:

It is important to keep good records.

A dependent variable is one that we measure.

It is good to have a larger sample size.

Here is what my kids actually learned from their science projects:

If I wait till the last minute, Mom will help me and I won’t have to do as much work.

Mom looks funny when she yells.

Mom knows some really bad words.

Recently a fellow parent posted on Facebook that helping a child do a science project would be a highly effective form of birth control.  Pretty much everyone with a child over the age of ten agreed with her.  The love that science teachers have for the science project is matched only by the hatred that parents and students have for it.  What gives?

Back in 2007, the first year that a child of mine had to do a science project, I was vested. More precisely, I was overinvested. 10 PM the night before it was due, my son and I were in an actual science lab using scales to weigh rocks.  Shouting happened. At the time I was a Neuroscience grad student, and in my naiveté I therefore believed that my son’s science project should be kickass, or at the very least, decent.

100_2348“Which Bridge is Stronger: Truss vs. Beam?” was, in retrospect, a perfectly good science project for a fourth-grader with no interest in science.  But there was an N of three, and that bothered me. There were no replicates. I knew we weren’t publishing in Nature, but still.

The next year he asked “Does the Angle of a Solar Panel Affect Electricity Generated?”  This one involved me breaking apart solar garden lights which is more far difficult that it sounds. Cursing happened. My son took measurements with an Ohmmeter that I just happened to have won in my Electronics for Scientists class.  He got honorable mention that year, and while I was pleased, the answer to his question was already known.  Replication is cool, but I wanted to break ground.

Sixth-grade, we went HAM.  “Hydroponic Vs Soil: Which is Better For Lettuce Plants?”  I constructed hydroponic growing containers and ventured to the suburbs to find vermiculite.  Leaving the basement lights on for 12 hours a day ran the electric bill up by $60 that month. My son grew 10 plants in each system.  When it came time for him to analyze the data, I was all:

“YOU CAN’T JUST SAY THE PLANT IS BIG! YOU NEED A METRIC!”

and

“OK SO YOU MADE A HISTOGRAM BUT IS THE DIFFERENCE STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT?”

My son would give me blank looks or say that they didn’t have to do that part.  Vocal chords were strained.

hydroponic plantsThat year my son won second place.  I was finally satisfied that he had done an interesting, original project with enough replicates, but after it was over, I realized that it wasn’t his project, it was mine. And I already had a science project of my own. It was called a Master’s Degree.

Seventh-grade year I backed off.  He got it done, but he didn’t win anything.  The next year my youngest reached fourth-grade, which meant he had to start doing science projects as well. I helped him the first year, but not the next. In fact, he didn’t even turn in a science project his sixth-grade year. He received an F for the quarter, which meant he wasn’t allowed to attend the annual middle-school dance. This year and last I had zero involvement in his project. This meant he didn’t get an A, but it also meant less screaming, yelling, cursing and shouting in our home.  It was a happy day a few weeks ago when he set off for school with the last science project of my parenting career. It had something to do with test-taking.

How did I go from over-involved to laissez-faire parent? In short, I realized that I was doing my kids no favors by helping them.  I’d been judging the science fair every year that I was available (not my own kids’ grades of course), and it was obvious who had assistance and who had none.  For the most part, kids with parents who had the means, time, and inclination to help them turned in better science projects that the kids whose parents were not involved.  I realized that we were rewarding the parents more than the kids.

Much ink has been spilled about how millennials are entitled, fragile, needy souls who require constant encouragement at work.  While this is a generalization, there is some truth in it. In the biology labs that I teach at the fine university down the street, I notice that many students demand a level of hand-holding that was simply not the norm when I went to college in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Rates of depression among college students have shot up in recent years, and 19% of millennials report that they are depressed, the highest of any age-group. The quarter-life crisis is now a thing.  What I find interesting is that these phenomena affect the highly educated more than the working class. Some psychologists have laid the blame for this on the parenting styles of educated, middle- to upper-class parents.  In other words, the parents who are most likely to help with the science project.

100_2352Speaking of, if parents banded together and agreed not to help their kids, the teachers would realize the full extent of parental involvement. The gap between the higher-achieving students (which for the most part is tied to parental income and education) and lower-achieving ones would be narrowed somewhat.  The parents who hate the science project would find that they don’t hate it quite as much.  Less involvement= less drama.  But we all know that’s never going to happen.  Just like the cold-war arms race, there will always be parents who want to give their children an edge.

Helicopter parents are like hipsters and alcoholics: nobody wants to admit that they are one.  There’s always somebody with a twirlier mustache, or four DUIs, or a more pathological attachment to their child’s success that we can point to as proof that we’re really not that bad.  It’s natural for us to want to help our children navigate this difficult world, from science projects to college apps to the job market.  But research suggests that when parents do too much for kids, they never learn to do for themselves, and that leads to feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt in adulthood.

Over the last fifty years, the culture of parenting shifted dramatically.  People used to just have kids and raise them. It wasn’t a big deal. There weren’t a million different parenting books.  There was one, and it was Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care. There were no parenting blogs. There were no blogs.  Nobody put Baby on Board signs on cars in the 1950’s. Parents locked kids out of the house and told them to go play. Nobody said it was child abuse. Bit by bit things like “quality time” and “building self-esteem” crept into the culture.  Probably because of the rise in mothers working outside the home, karate studios, dance studios, after-school programs, sports leagues, enrichment centers and summer camps blossomed like dandelions after a spring rain.  It is now an unspoken rule that the more involved the parent is in a child’s life, the better.

100_2350When I take an honest look at my parenting, I see that I got pretty hovery for a minute.  It’s so hard to set the line between over-involvement and slacking off.  I’m still trying to find the balance.  As a control-freak, my natural inclination is to nag and meddle. As typical boys, or humans really, my childrens’ inclination is to do as little work as possible.  Impress the teacher? Whatever. But I came to the conclusion that it’s better to let them fail now, while the stakes are lower, than later in life.  Better to let them suffer the natural consequences of their actions when they are under my roof than when they are not.

So when I feel the urge to rev up my little helicopter, I practice stepping away. Granted, I usually do it with a bad word or two, but I do it.  Like everything else in parenting, I won’t know if my strategy is a good one until they’re grown up. Like everything else in parenting, there are no do-overs.  When I doubt myself, I picture my grandmother, who raised five kids in a 1000-square foot house, sending them out to play in the neighborhood and settling down for a nap. My mom and aunt and uncles turned out just fine, and here’s to hoping that my boys will too.