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Negotiating school science fairs becomes the parent trap

By Linda K. Wertheimer
Globe Staff / March 22, 2009
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At a recent elementary school science fair in Lexington, a father spotted something amiss as his son set up his entry, "Cabbage Chemistry: A Homemade Acid Base Indicator System." He touched the 10-year-old's arm to stop a possible mistake.

Nothing was at stake for father or son. Every participant gets a ribbon at the Bowman Elementary School Science Fair. No winners. No losers. Yet this parent, like some others, could not quell the urge to help polish his child's project to perfection. The father took photos for the display on the son's findings about whether lemon juice and vinegar a nd other substances were acids or bases, and the boy's mother provided test tubes from her science lab.

As the competition for college grows stiffer and the job market gets tighter, some parents are going further than in past decades to give their children an edge. And science fairs are often the place where teachers and others see the handiwork of well-meaning yet far-too-involved parents.

In response, many schools are trying to lessen the competition, particularly in the earlier grades, and are emphasizing learning rather than a blue ribbon as the prize. Some schools also have begun to require children to do more projects in the classroom rather than at home to eliminate the possibility of having their parents do the work.

Such over-involvement, educators say, sometimes begins as early as a child's birth, when parents begin vying for plum spots in the best preschool, with the hopes of getting their child into the best private school and, ultimately, college. And, in college, some professors in recent years have begun to see parents trying to negotiate better grades for their children.

While quantitative research is scant on the topic of over-involvement, educators predict that children end up less creative and less able to make decisions for themselves if their parents do too much for them.

"When you get something like a science fair, there ought to be some very careful guidance to parents to say, 'You're depriving your child of a great opportunity if you turn this into your project,' " said Joseph S. Renzulli, a University of Connecticut education professor and co-author of an upcoming book, "Light Up Your Child's Mind," that gives parents ideas on how to instill in their children a love for learning.

When parents step back, they and teachers can see what a child truly is capable of, said Mary Anton-Oldenburg, Bowman's principal. The school, she said, stopped judging for prizes at various events because of the disparity in parent involvement.

"There are groups that would like it to be more competitive," she said. "Lexington is plenty competitive, and you see it in spades at the high school."

Parents should act as guides, but keep their hands off projects, educators and science fair coordinators say.

In Needham, parent Jen Cusack cofounded the Mitchell School's Invention Invasion seven years ago as a noncompetitive alternative to traditional science fairs.

"You see projects where everything is cut out perfectly and glued perfectly," said Cusack, who has three sons, ages 8 to 14. "That's just not what a third-grader can do."

The parent's role is to ask questions and help refine a child's thinking on an idea, said Mike Schwinden, Mitchell's principal. "Parents are there to be leaned on gently, but eventually the role of the parent is to make leaning less necessary," he said.

Nina Senatore, an education professor at Simmons College, said parents fall into one of two categories. "Well-meaning parents are just unclear on the boundaries and wonder where does help start and end? Self-serving parents look at the task like a business plan, and say, 'How can I make my child the best, the winner?' " Senatore said.

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