Pinewood Derby again today, and I TRIED to like that program again, and I still think it needs to be either reworked or abolished. Seriously.
My dad, decades past his pinewood derby experiences, STILL remembers his sorrow and frustration at putting his heart (and hours of work) into a car that he did all by himself and having to race it against cars done by other Scouts' dads. And that still happens. Probably more than we think.
Problems with the program:
Anyone who doesn't have a wealthy scouting father with a regular work schedule (and therefore hours to help a boy) is at a serious disadvantage. There are supplies necessary to make a decent car, like a kitchen scale at home so you have more than 40 minutes to tinker after it's been weighed, and like expensive craft paints, weights, graphite for the wheels that are expensive and necessary if you want your car to have a good showing. That's not fair to the kids who are poor, have a single mother heading their household, or even just have a dad with no idea how this all works. It's almost impossible to make one without the right tools--and they're not tools that everyone has anymore. (Yes, people shared some of those things at the weigh-in, but it was chaos, the time was limited, and it's no fun to beg).
I have a hard time believing that Jesus would have the boys work hard on something and then make them cry and publicly humiliate some. I don't care how much the Scout program defends it, IT'S NOT RIGHTEOUS. There, I said it. It needed to be said. It is NOT okay to break someone's heart or embarrass them in front of their peers. It's okay to have a race, or even a competition. But if many boys are crying (and they are), I really can't justify it. If it leaves boys who did good, honest work with a sad feeling for decades later, what are we doing?
Also, I know competition is "the American Way," but the way Americans do competition is something we need to repent of, not support. So I have a hard time asking my boys to learn this in order to participate in Scouts, especially since homeschoolers don't get exposed to that kind of "competition" almost ever. We do have competitions, but it's not that mean, cutthroat kind of competition that doesn't actually lead to viable learning that will benefit the boys. If you look at it honestly, the way the pinewood derby is run teaches the boys that 1. they can't work hard and succeed by themselves, and 2. winning a race is important (so cheating is okay if it helps you win) and 3. a creative product must have a single end in mind, and is only valuable if it meets that criteria (ie coolness of design is irrelevant--speed is the only thing that matters; this is stifling to truly creative people).
Who wants to teach the boys this? It's wrong.
I can see why number 3 might be justified--we often are asked, as adults, to make a product that accomplishes a specific goal. But the problem here is the documentation that comes with the car doesn't state the right goal (To make a super-fast car) and give instructions on that. Instead, the instructions are vague and emphasize creativity and hard work (which are good things I fully believe in)--even saying your car will possibly be in a competition for how cool it looks rather than how fast it goes (but nobody EVER does this competition). But then are you rewarded for creativity or hard work? NO. You're only rewarded for speed. The stated goals the boys are to work for MUST match the test of whether they accomplished those goals. If the test is for speed, then by all means, emphasize that in the documentation! It's really not about creativity or hard work, so why pretend it is? That's just heartbreaking for the creative hard workers.
So, how I would fix this program? (Because criticizing without proposing a solution is not helpful, right?).
First, I would have a Make-a-Car night for the pack meeting before (or for) the pinewood derby, where everyone receives their car kit, has access to both the tools and the expertise of other families, and can sit down for an hour or two and make a car. This levels the playing field, making it so every boy actually has a shooting chance at making a decent car, and putting real pressure on the dads to not make a car for their sons, but simply to help. In fact, if it were just me, I would schedule it as a big 3-hour event and do the races the same night. I know some people would protest that they like to spend time on their cars, designing and sanding and tweaking. And they still could do all the designing they wanted--and just bring the designs to the event. And everyone would know the cars were made all together in an hour or two, so it would still be fair. Just set up some big tables and make a car party event, complete with saws, sand paper, paints, scales, graphite, extra car kits, etc. I would even encourage the dads to sit beside their boys and make their own cars while they help their boys, and then let the dads race against each other. I'd give car kits to all the siblings and moms and neighbor kids who wanted to make them, too.
Second, since I know they set the whole system up before the races (the night before in our case), I would allow test runs not against any other cars, but in a setting where they could ask, "How fast did yours go?" so there is a benchmark. Then I would allow the boys to tweak their cars--add weights, move them around to different spots on the car, drill holes, check the wheel alignments, add graphite, etc. This would make the event much more educational and more also more fair. I know a little boy who was in tears today because somehow the wheels of his car were bumped before the race so the alignment was off and his car went slow. He was devastated. Even if the wheels had been put on wrong by him, though, wouldn't it be fair to let him discover that and fix it before the big race? That is, after all, the way creation and development work in real life. We don't create a product and release it without any chance at debugging! In fact, it's illegal in many professions to do it that way, and just bad practice in general. As it is now, without a chance to test the cars, you end up with a crap shoot. And worse, you end up with boys who are publicly embarrassed by things that are easily corrected. Again, it levels the playing field and makes it more educational, and gives everyone the chance to benefit from everyone else's expertise, which is, I believe, the way a Zion Society is supposed to function.
And finally, if the event were not going to be at a Pinewood Derby Party as suggested above, I would hold the whole thing at 2:00 am--just to get even, really, since that's when they always make us come out to their events (at our equivalent of 2:00 am). (Just kidding.) (Okay, only sort of.....). But I would go out of my way to make accomodations for boys with disabilities. If a boy has limited mobility, make sure the doors with no steps leading up to them are open (they always only open the back ones, which have stairs). If a boy has a sleep disorder, perhaps not hold the event so early in the morning? Why not in the afternoon? (I know--it puts a dozen other families out because their Saturday was broken in the middle, and they might not even remember to come!). (Naturally, someone is going to see my suggestion and do a pinewood derby party--and they'll hold it at 8:00 am on a Saturday! Tim has to work Saturdays, and Caleb has an incurable, untreatable circadian rhythm disorder, so then we'd be prevented from attending all together!). It just makes sense to have compassion for people with problems they can't fix.
I honestly wonder how many adult men who did scouts have truly fond memories of their pinewood derby days? Honestly.
And, to be fair, my ward does better than many. For one thing, they let anyone in the family who wants to make a car do it (you just have to pay a dollar for the extra kits). And they mix the family cars in and let them race with the boys' cars. This is fantastic. For once, the girls are not excluded! In fact, I'd have the girls make cars for their Activity Days and come race, too, but that might be asking too much. (Obviously, I'm not big on the "purity" of the scouting program--I'm all about families, not wasting good educational opportunities, and equal access).
The other thing they do right is they give every participant an award for their car, regardless of how fast it went. So Caleb came home with the most creative paint job, and Anda with the most creative use of weights. This is a good thing--it rewards children for their work, acknowledging their strengths. Hooray for Laura, who did all the work looking at each car and coming up with an award for each person!
So instead of being happy we had such a great experience, once again I'm relieved that it's over and we don't have to think about it for another year.