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Hitting the sweet spot at the science fair

I read the article “Science Fairs Aren’t So Fair” (The Atlantic) with some interest, given that my kids are longtime participants in our local and state science fairs. As a parent who hasn’t fallen into the helicopter-parent trap that the writer describes, I thought I’d enjoy her little exposé.

Only two kinds of science fair parents, really?


Families enjoying each other’s board during our local science fair’s public hours.

As a short recap, the article starts with the premise that there are two kinds of parents: the parents who dread the science fair because it asks students to do something they aren’t prepared to do, and other parents who basically do the work for their kids and compete with each other. I don’t disagree that these two groups of parents exist, but at least in my experience, they don’t make up the majority of science fair parents. More importantly, I can’t agree with her conclusion that it’s the kids of the pushy parents who end up winning.

It depends on how you define winning.

Our science fair experiences have included both sets of parents described above. The hovering helicopter parents are certainly annoying—they create gorgeous boards for their kids, write their reports for them, and then train their kids to answer the judges’ questions like performing animals. Sometimes their kids win at their school and county levels—but are they really winning?

The article goes on to quote Google’s first science fair winner, who says that those helicopter parents started turning up in elementary school. She describes standing next to another kid whose project had clearly been completed by an over-involved professor-dad.

But here’s what she doesn’t point out:

She won the Google Science Fair. Not the kids whose parents let them use million-dollar equipment. Not the kids whose parents coached them and created beautiful boards. She won. She doesn’t say why, but I bet I can guess.

But kids can’t do science!

Here’s a quote from the writer of the article, who falls into the “science fair dreaders” camp:

“Much of the parental anger seems to stem from the fact that the bulk of science fairs ask children to produce something, in some cases competitively, that is well beyond their abilities,” she writes.

These parents who act put-upon about being asked to support their kids in inquiry learning outside of school are closer to the helicopter parents than they want to believe. Inquiry-based science isn’t a mystery—it’s something that preschoolers do every day. But we train our kids to think is “hard” and “serious” once they enter elementary school.

It seems to me that the put-upon parents are acting just as competitively as the helicopter parents, except they’re choosing to be the slackers on campus rather than the geeks.

Finding a middle ground


Yucky moldy bananas in my kitchen. It must be science fair time!

So how should parents who want their kids to succeed in the science fair offer support? Well, first of all, if your kid isn’t into it, that’s totally fine. If your 10-year-old needs to do inquiry-based science at home for an assignment, find one of the basic, fun, and yes, hardly original experiments that they can do. Put some fruit out on a tray and take photos of it as it gets moldy. Create three kinds of paper airplanes and hypothesize about which one will fly the furthest. It really doesn’t matter what you do—the main point is to have fun and let your child know that anyone can do this.

Science is not a mystery—babies practice it every day.

If your child is into it, however, you are not required to be a helicopter parent. In fact, you won’t be helping if you do all the work. Let your child struggle; let him make mistakes; let her go in a wrong direction and document it. That’s science. That’s learning. On the other hand, don’t let your child drown in service of your wish not to be a helicopter parent. Offer all the support you can, and if you can’t support your child, find another adult who can help out. The key is that it’s your child’s goal, not yours, that you are supporting.

How to avoid hovering

My son, for the record, does all his science without any help from me. After the first few sentences of his report on the programming language he invented, all I’m doing is scanning for typos. His knowledge is more advanced than mine and I know it. However, he does need support in a few areas. One is scheduling: I know that it helps him to put the various stages of preparation on the calendar with reminders, so once the dates are announced we do that together. Another area he asks for help with is, yes, the board. But the sort of help I give—cutting, pasting things on straight, and comments like “I think that font should be bigger”—are support, not “doing it for him.” (In fact, I would love to design cool boards for him, but he complains if I make even the smallest decision about the visual design. So much for my attempts to live through my children!)

Why do we work this way? First, early on I was attracted to the “I’ve got your back” theory of parenting. This came from a mom who was describing to me why she couldn’t go with behavioralist style parenting techniques that make the parent the enforcer. She said, “If nothing else, I want my kids to know that I’m there for them. When they’re having trouble, I want them to know that I’ve got their back.”

Second, research into child behavior, learning, and brain development is all pointing the same way: Kids who are supported and feel comfortable learn more easily, but kids who struggle in their learning learn more deeply and go further. So in preparing for the science fair—and in parenting in general—I hope to hit the sweet spot between raising kids who know that their parents love and support them, and raising kids who learn the value of struggling through something hard to reach a goal that they set themselves. I suspect that the parents of kids who excel at the top levels of science fairs, such as Google’s, have parents who have hit the sweet spot particularly well.

Why do so many parents go to extremes?


Any kid can do fun experiments in the density of different liquids. You don’t have to do cutting edge research to have fun and learn.

Let’s face it:

It’s easy to be that complaining parent who says that their eight-year-old isn’t capable of inquiry learning.

And it’s very tempting to live through our kids and make sure that they succeed at all costs.

But that sweet spot is like balancing in the middle of a seesaw. It’s not simple, and it never stops being a challenge. However, when parents support their children in a goals they set, they always see success—even when their children don’t win awards. To see our children striving, learning, and growing should be all the success we’re looking for.

Posted in Education, Parenting.

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3 Responses

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  1. Suki says

    A correspondent sent me a link to an article written by the mom behind the apparently famous fake science fair board which mocked school science fairs. It’s a good, thoughtful article and you can find it here:

  2. Suki says

    A few more thoughts in response to the Huff Post article: My daughter has a great science teacher at her middle school, who says that he gives at-home projects because a completely different group of kids excels at them than the ones who excel at classroom-based activities. He does make it competitive – he gives kids a goal they have to reach in order to get an A. But these projects are just part of a student’s grade. If they don’t have parental support, or if they don’t like doing the project, then they can make up for it in other ways. Similarly, I wish parents would understand that it’s really OK if your kid doesn’t excel at the science fair. It’s such a valuable experience for the kids who do enjoy it, that getting rid of it or taking the fun out of it (for some kids, the competition is where the fun lies!) would devalue it. Schools need to be varied enough to make room for all kinds of kids. If we try to make it comfortable in all ways for all kids, it’s going to end up serving no one’s needs.

  3. Suki says

    Here’s another article that I think is very badly titled, since the title completely misrepresents the article: “Science fairs aren’t actually preparing your kids to do anything” – . Being able to do engineering projects has been great for my son since our county fair (and the state fair) added it. When he’s doing computer science, the only question he is trying to answer is “Can I do this?” and perhaps after that, “How can I do this better?” So much for having a hypothesis!

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