Benji was so traumatized by last year's Pinewood Derby that he refused to participate this year. He let Anda take his car and build and race for him (which I thought was fair, since she didn't get to do it purely because of her biology.)
I hate the pinewood derby. Really truly despise it, even though my kids have had good experiences along with the bad.
Here are the things I hate (and proposed solutions):
1. I really, honestly do not believe that Jesus would set up little, sensitive boys to work hard only to be crushed. I can't imagine Him attending the Pinewood Derby and watching 12 of 17 boys go home in tears and thinking, "Gosh, isn't this a great event?!"
Now, some leaders run it better than others. The person running ours this year worked very hard to reward the boys for honest effort without minimizing the accomplishments of those who actually won. So this can be a worse or better situation, but I still question what Jesus would do in this case.
2. It's long past time to get rid of events that only boys can do and girls don't get to. This bothers me a LOT. Right up there with 8 year old boys getting a fun activity every week and girls having to only have one every other week. WHO IS PLANNING THIS? Because it's wrong. I can accept that the priesthood only goes to the men in the church, but there is absolutely no reason for little girls to be punished for being little girls. I do not think God approves of treating our little girls this way. If He does, He and I need to have a serious talk because in my view this is very, very wrong. (Which is why I let Anda make and race Benji's car instead of letting the other boys do it).
I was in a ward once where they let siblings and parents make and race cars, too, also on the ward's budget. This is a viable solution.
Another solution would be to run a second pinewood derby at a different time of year for the activity day girls. Modern girls need to know how to use tools and need to practice the engineering process, too, so why are we not including them? Plus they want it. And I know a whole lot of girls who feel hurt and sad that a church thing refuses to include them because they are female.
I cannot emphasize how wrong this feels to me. It makes me angry and hurt and it needs to change, and if I knew who to petition, I would write them a letter right now even though that never works for me (they always say no anyway). I would circulate petitions to all the wards I can reach and send them to Salt Lake City. This is just a really stupid thing to do to little girls and very very easy to fix. (I don't care that it's run by the cub scouts and they don't do girls. Why can't we just buy the same kits and give them to the girls and have an unofficial, don't-pass-it-on-to-regionals race? Most of the boys cars don't go on to regionals anyway. Or let's just choose to never pass any Mormon cars on to regionals and that makes it fair).
Can I add day camp on to this list, too? For real, people! Run the same number of equivalent events for boys and girls. Let's stop with the boys get to shoot arrows twice a year and girls have to do a "day of service" and paint another picture of the temple onto a stained 2x4 once a year. The girls want to shoot arrows, too, and the boys need to do service.
Proposed solution: Abandon scouts and have all the kids do a program like the girls do. Or make the girls program functionally identical to scouts (although I think the girls' program is superior).
3. The pinewood derby system, as it runs now, is deeply unfair to poor kids.
To make a car that is competitive even a little and not embarrassing to the little boys, you have to have the right power tools to cut with, you have to have graphite for the wheels, you have to have weights, and you have to have nice glossy model paint. All of these are expensive.
Solution: See number 4. Also, require everyone to use the kits the ward provides instead of allowing them to go out and buy a specialty kit (pre-shaped car).
4. The system is also unfair to anyone without special "inside knowledge." This disadvantages kids whose parents are doing this for the first time, kids who follow the original intention of the program and make the cars all by themselves, disabled kids, kids who have parents who never were in cub scouts, and families headed by single moms. So pretty much everyone who is already vulnerable--just put them at a greater disadvantage to everyone else. That's a nice plan. I'm sure Jesus is super happy about that, making the kids who cry anyway cry more, and making the lives of the disadvantaged even harder. That's awfully nice of us!
I have had people say to me, "Well, those people should ask for help. I'd help them! They can do cars at my house next year." Yeah? Well how were they supposed to know that before their child was melted in tears because the car lost every single race because it was too light and they didn't even know that weights existed?
Some wards try to mitigate this (including mine) by having a weigh-in with tools, weights, and scales available, and the people who know how to place weights provide the weights (and the graphite for the wheels) and teach the others how to do it.
This helps a little, but doesn't solve the problem that people are not getting good instructions. The kits don't even include the rules for the size of the cars. I've been doing this for years now and still don't know what I'm doing, and just learned this year that the blocks of wood come too long and you have to cut an eighth of an inch off the length.
There is insider knowledge about how to place the wheels, where to put the weights, how to shape the cars (what kinds of tools to use), etc. Some people know this, and some don't, and you can't get the information anywhere.
This is an unfair system and puts fragile boys at a disadvantage and crushes them.
Solving problems 3 and 4 would be fairly easy: Have a make-cars night together, starting with a workshop from a person who knows how to do it, and followed by a chance for parents and kids to make their cars together. Bring all the tools (including a band saw and sand paper) and all the supplies (fancy paints, brushes, graphite, etc) for any and all who want to join. Let the insiders teach the outsiders so everyone has the same resources and same information and all the help they need, without having to beg or guess who has the time and tools. Make it optional so parents who really want to just make their cars with their kids at home can, but assign some people who know what they're doing to help. Kids still get to make the cars with their parents, but without the disadvantage. Or invite the parents to come to the weekly scouts meetings the two weeks before the pinewood derby and do it there, for scouts.
An easier solution that wouldn't address problem 3 but would help with problem 4 would be to print articles from Boys' Life magazine about how to make a winning car. They have them. A lot of the insider knowledge is right there, but nobody gets Boys' Life (and truthfully most of it is useless propaganda for "buying in to the way we do things" anyway). Stuff like this would be immensely helpful: http://boyslife.org/hobbies-projects/projects/2952/speed-secrets/. But the boys and parents don't even know to look for it.
5. This teaches a faulty engineering process. If you go by the pinewood derby, you get an assignment and supplies, and you make something and then that's it. No testing. But real engineers build-test-rebuild-retest-tweak-retest-redesign-retest. It's a long process of trying and failing and learning from the mistakes and improving.
Solution: Let the boys do test runs the week before, send their cars home, and then run the real races the next week, after everyone has had a chance to rebuild and tweak their cars.
6. I am pretty sure the kits come unequal even though they look the same. I really want to get four kits and do nothing to them but insert the wheels--all with equal care--and then race them. If all kits are equal, they would tie. But the weight distribution within the wood itself, and the wheels and axles not being truly identical (some have burrs, some are unbalanced or slightly bent, etc), and other factors mean some boys are doomed from the get-go and some will win even if they do nothing to their car but stick the wheels on.
One year Dan made a car that functionally should have acted like a sail and slowed him down, but it won everything. The next year he made a beautifully aerodynamic car and it lost everything. Weights were the same (but placed differently). Obviously there is something more going on than is in the control of the boys, which means we are rewarding some people for their "work" when in fact it was the luck of the draw.
Actually, that's probably a life lesson right there: it doesn't matter how hard you work or how talented you are, some people just make a lot of money and some don't, and it's actually not due to cause and effect like we think. You work hard and do your very best and it doesn't matter at all because if you weren't handed a good kit in the first place, you're gonnna lose. That feels like real life.
There is no way to solve this problem, but we could minimize it by making all other things (like access to resources) equal.
7. We are subjecting our boys to this trauma to what end? Yes, people need to learn how to lose gracefully because we all lose sometimes. But when else in life are we asked to work very, very hard on something that is quite difficult for one shot at public glory/humiliation (only 1 in 20 gets glory--the odds are very bad unless you have a leader like we had this year who works hard to recognize all the work the boys did) and no chance to go back and fix things up and try again? This is not a "life lesson" or "practice at useful skills". The kids would have a better chance at winning a coin toss, and that takes no effort.
What the boys learn from this is their best is not good enough, and that no matter how wonderful their creation is, they're going to lose. And that the only thing that matters is winning by someone else's standards, not how cool the car is, how innovative it is, how unique it is, how hard you worked on it, or if your kit came with warped wheels in the first place. While sometimes in life the result is all that matters, sometimes the innovation matters more. And always when there is a single required quantifiable result (like speed), we have chances to collaborate with experts and run trials before we have to be tested.
Benji won't even try any more. And that's a shame because I'd like for him to have a chance to make something he loves and learn to use tools, but we have the system set up so the cards are stacked against him, the failure is public and obvious, and the risk is too great. I can't ask him to do that.
This is a fixable system, but people are so entrenched in tradition that they aren't willing, and that's a shame. That's what happens when the people who run the system are the people who succeeded in it in the first place. (This isn't true in Mormon wards, where people are called to run the system, but it is true of the higher-ups who are controlling the national rules; they wouldn't be in scouts if they hadn't had a good experience with it in the first place. They succeeded the way it was written, so they have no reason to change it for those who are not succeeding.) Now that I've written this, I can see so many applications outside of cub scouts (English teachers go into English teaching because they were the few who liked how it is done, for example, which perpetuates the system, and not necessarily to the benefit of most regular people).
And since I have no voice--there is nobody to complain to or agitate for change--there is nothing I can do except grit my teeth each year and cry with my boys. Especially when they lose because I couldn't get the wheels on straight because of some hiccup or another.
While I love the idea of boys building cars, I hate the pinewood derby. Even though my kids both won this year.