Making Sense of the Child:  Getting Inside the Head

It can be difficult to follow a child’s thought process.  The logic is jumbled and the thinking cluttered with misconceptions and misinformation and following the conversation with a kid is akin to trying to track a rabbit that suddenly disappears down a hole, only to reappear fifteen minutes later from another hole linked to its den.  But there is a logic there and it’s helpful to make an effort to understand it, especially when it dictates actions and attitudes that are contrary to what we teach and try to model ourselves.  Such is the case with Youngest and his desire to lose this year’s Pinewood Derby.

If you aren’t aware, the Pinewood is a coming of age experience for millions of boys who’ve gone through cub scouts, in which they turn a Pine block, four nails and wheels into a racing creation.  It’s also where a father’s own attitudes come into play as to how to help the boy with the car.  My own attitude is that it’s ultimately the boy’s car.  I’ll help him to clarify his drawings and in the early years, cut the car for him, but it’s otherwise up to his own imagination and desire to produce.  It’s a function of my understanding of the purpose of Pinewood as well as my own awareness of my handiness with tools – I can do basics, but I’m not a craftsman.  Both of my sons have produced solidly middle-of-the-pack vehicles that will win a few heats but never take an entire derby.

After last year’s race, he was curious about why a particularly cool looking car was so slow as to consistently lose, so convincingly that it won the Most Fuel Efficient trophy, a consolation trophy awarded to assauge the embarrassment of the boy who builds that year’s slowest car.  While it’s awarded for the slowest car, it’s a legitimately nice award that doesn’t mock the effort.  All of the trophies are Hot Wheels cars and professionally engraved plaques mounted on varnished wood bases and in this year’s case, was a Hot Wheels modified 1971 Maverick; it isn’t a milk or garbage truck.  Over the intervening year, we’d have occasional conversations about Pinewood and it became apparent that not only did he not want to win, but he wanted to lose and do so consistently.  He didn’t want a sleek vehicle, but an absolute clunker that was the slowest thing on the track.  While my wife and I aren’t sticklers about having to win – do your best and try, but bear losing with some grace – this was frankly disconcerting.  When it came time to start this year’s Pinewood car, it sank in that he was actively incorporating design elements that were in last year’s slowest car.  As we talked further, his thought process clarified into something that was surprisingly mature and honestly, very goal-oriented.  But the goal wasn’t to win, it was to obtain a trophy.  He defined success in a much different way than I did.

You see, I make the trophies, which are cheaper than the good-looking statues and more attractive than the cheesy awards.

Youngest saw the trophies and realized that the Most Fuel Efficient was frankly as attractive as the others, albeit with a smaller scale car.  He wanted a trophy and measured his capabilities versus those of other boys who were either more gifted with their hands or had far more hands-on fathers and decided that in order to achieve his goal, his best shot of earning that trophy was to build a complete loser.  To his credit, he actively built his car to lose and when it came time to add white graphite to the axles, which effectively decreases friction on the nail-axles, he declined as he knew that everybody else wanted the graphite added.

Precisely how do I handle a situation in which a child defines success in losing?  Children are concrete and the abstract doesn’t come until much later, so the motivation is in a tangible, three dimensional award instead of an  ephemeral sense of victory.  Youngest determined his goal and then worked to achieve that goal.  Do I demand that he abandon that goal and come away with nothing or do I go ahead and support the kid when he’s actually using his head and thinking through the situation?  It’s one of the most surreal scenarios that I’ve encountered in sixteen years of fatherhood.

He came in dead last of four cars in his first heat and when he raised his arms and cheered, parents looked askance.  When he came in last again and celebrated, a few looked at me and I explained and as the morning wore on, a few parents – me included – also began to cheer when his car lost.  When all was said and done, he ultimately failed at his attempt to fail and as a measure of its surrealism, I don’t know whether he say that he actually failed or succeeded.  I can say that I’m honestly proud of him in his clear assessment of himself and his chances as well as his design that furthered his chance of meeting his goal.  The issue sometimes isn’t the child himself, but rather the circumstances in which the child finds himself and finding that that’s the case can save considerable heartache and grief.

As a final note, we’ll be having a conversation amongst the pack leadership about the lesson taught in such a visible reward of failure.



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