Author: Zuniga, Nancy

Let the Kids Do It Themselves

Driving along Highway 180 on the way to and from the Fathers Day Festival, I see the historic firehouse in Old Town Auburn. Every June when I pass by that stretch of the freeway, the sight of that venerable structure brings back a memory that humbles me to this day.

In 1990, my son Jesse was in the second grade at Skyridge Elementary School in Auburn. Students in his class were given several weeks to complete a Social Studies project; they were each assigned to construct a model of one of the historic buildings in Auburn. Jesse decided to build a replica of the old firehouse from bricks made of sugar cubes. He soon discovered that sugar cubes don’t respond well to Elmer’s Glue, so we switched to using a hot glue gun. I didn’t want my 7-year-old to use a glue gun without supervision, so I had Jesse stack the “bricks” while I operated the glue gun. It was a tedious task, and Jesse soon lost interest. Over the next few weeks, no amount of cajoling, threats, or bribery would get him to spend more than a few minutes working on his firehouse. When there was only one day remaining before the project was due, against my better judgment I worked feverishly to glue the remaining sugar cubes together myself, put a hastily-cut cardboard roof in place, and then painted the rickety structure, discovering in the process that sugar cubes don’t take kindly to acrylic paint any more than they do to glue. The model was pretty sloppy, but at least Jesse would have something to turn in to his teacher.

A couple of weeks later, Skyridge School held an open house for parents. The historical models were on display in Jesse’s classroom. Some were so realistic and pristine in their workmanship that I felt a strong sense of shame mixed with envy. As I stood there, Jesse’s teacher Mr. Ford came over and told me how much he liked Jesse’s firehouse. He must have noticed my expression of surprise, so he explained, “Some of the models are too perfect to have been done by a 7-year-old; you just know the parents did most of the work, but I like Jesse’s firehouse because you can tell that he did it all by himself.” I did not disillusion Mr. Ford.

Shoddy workmanship aside, in completing my son’s project, I had failed to take to heart the moral of a story I had been told many years earlier. A woman who had grown up on a farm once related to me how as a child, she felt so sorry for baby chicks as she watched them struggling to free themselves from the egg that she would sometimes assist them by peeling away bits of the shell for them. And she told me that every chick that she “helped” in that manner died shortly thereafter; she learned that the chicks needed that initial struggle in order to build up the strength they would need for survival.

Fast forward to the Kids On Bluegrass Show at Grass Valley. Although adult volunteers put in long hours advising and organizing the children, the final product is a show put on by the kids themselves. Adults don’t stand onstage with cheat sheets or whisper lyrics into a singer’s ear. Even the smallest participants play their own instruments; no adult is coming up behind a child and fingering chords while the aspiring musician stands there holding a guitar or mandolin. And it’s obvious from the smiles on the kids’ faces that they are justifiably proud of their accomplishments, pride which they couldn’t experience if they hadn’t put in long hours of effort and done the lion’s share of work themselves.

One of the trickiest aspects of guiding children to learn and grow is in recognizing where the line is drawn between being supportive and being enabling. If I had a rewind button for life, I would certainly do some things differently in terms of my parenting, and one of those things would be to allow my son to take a failing grade on his second-grade Social Studies assignment if he wasn’t willing to do most of the work himself. I would limit my role to that of an advisor, giving him guidance with his project. Jesse would’ve learned to sink or swim a bit sooner in life, and I would’ve spared myself the personal embarrassment of knowing that my crafting skills were on a par with those of a 7-year-old child. My only consolation is in knowing that if I’d handled the situation differently, I might never have learned another life lesson: You really can’t build a firehouse out of sugar cubes.
Posted:  7/7/2011

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