For decades, pinewood derbies have operated under the guise that they're an opportunity for parents and children to bond. Wooden blocks are purchased and cut into shapes specified by the parents with very little input from their kids. Parents pull sandpaper out of the supply closet, purchase paints, and lay down the paper to prevent messes. The kids are ushered to the table where the magic is about to happen. The parents explain how to build a pinewood derby car to the children. Two sentences in, the kids are in the other room, trying to turn the TV back on. The parents yell for their kids to come back in or else they’ll get a timeout. The children come back begrudgingly and do the most half-assed job anyone could ever muster the strength to do, efficiently destroying the beautiful base the parents had agonized over. After five minutes of sloppy paint application, the kids are kicked out of the kitchen so the parents can finish the pinewood derby right.
The day of the race, parents carefully carry the newly finished cars to check in while the kids run off to hang out with their friends. A few kids, who made their cars, proudly carry them in. Most families realize right then that their grand ambitions for bonding never came to fruition. In fact, they’d missed the last week of their kids’ lives working on the car, and they’ve never felt more distant from their offspring.
The above was the scenario we encountered our first year as participants in the Pinewood Derby at Darla’s school. Greg put everything he had into that car, hoping to inspire the engineer he knows lurks in Darla’s soul. He researched the best ways to increase the cars’ speed. He chose an aerodynamic design, baked the car, and shaved it down with a surgeon’s precision. Meanwhile, Darla was doing pirouettes and singing “All About That Bass.” He purchased the best spray paint and turned her car into a beautiful bubblegum pink shade over the course of a few hours. He then pulled Darla away from the TV, gave her a paint set, and a paintbrush to make the car hers. She applied a few strokes of purple and a few dots a glitter before she begged to go back to the TV. If you count reprimanding your kid and forcing her to do an activity she has zero interest in as bonding, our family bonded more than any family ever has in the history of time.
On the day of the race, as we looked at all the cars already registered, we questioned, for a number of the vehicles, whether the students had even been allowed to touch the derby cars they had entered. There were paper-thin, professionally-painted, small vehicles. There was also one car that was a detailed replica of a guitar complete with the graininess of the shellacked wood. We understood, then, that this wasn’t a competition between students, but a contest between the student’s parents. Did the quality of the car indicate just how much we loved our kids? If that’s the case, does the fact that Greg was the only one who worked on Darla’s car mean that he loves her more?
Greg hoped that, if Darla rooted for her car and felt the adrenaline rush of the race, she might be inspired to participate more in the construction of the vehicle next year. She’d see the benefit of all the hard work. Darla stood on the sidelines for the first race, which “her” car won. That was when she saw her friend Haylen and left to say hi to her. Greg was absorbed in the race as Darla’s car won heat after heat. In the end, it was down to Darla’s car and a fifth grader’s car competing for second place. Greg and I began rooting for Darla’s car. It was then that we saw the fifth-grader kneeling and praying. We looked over at Darla, who was dancing with her friend four yards away. We looked back at the praying child. At that moment, we decided to pull the positive energy we had been pouring towards Darla’s car. The fifth grader was the one who deserved to win.
“Where’s my trophy?” Darla asked when the race ended.
“You didn’t win,” Greg said.
“Oh well,” Darla said as she ran back to Haylen. In the background, we could see the fifth-grader crying joyous cheers as he held up his second place car.
This year, we endeavored to only put in as much energy into the kid’s cars as they were willing to put in. If we followed through with that strategy, however, we’d currently have a wooden block with a bit of paint on it, and we’d be out the $25 we spent on those pieces of wood. It's easier for me to be ok with wheels glued to the bottom of a wooden block than it is for Greg, so he worked to at least turn them into nice looking cars. The precision and vigor from the last year, however, disappeared. The memory of Darla's apathetic shrug from the year before still loomed large in his memory.
This year, we’re not bowing to the pressure of the pinewood derby. Greg was able to make the cars look really slick without worrying over the science of an aerodynamic derby car like he had last year. To get the cars to that next level, the level we observed on the day of the race last year, we’d have to take a month off of work and ignore Darla and Jude. We already used up all our vacation days for the year, so that's not possible. As a result, Darla, and now Jude, have been a bit more involved this year and their cars look more like them. Most important, Greg and I are not competing with the other parents to see who is the most proficient at bonding with their kids while creating miracles of modern-day engineering.