Jan 22, 2012

An Open Letter to the Fathers of Cub Scouts

Yesterday I got up at 3:45am and drove from Maine down to Massachusetts for the fifth and final Pinewood Derby of my older son Ian's Cub Scout career. I have been saving these sentiments up since Ian's first Derby, and this last one--combined with the irritation of having to drive back through a snowstorm--really set me off.

Here's why. There were three cars in Ian's Webelos heats at yesterday's Pinewood Derby that looked like they had come out of a concept lab at GM (or, more accurately representing their style, Ferrari). It was absolutely clear to everyone in the school cafeteria where the race was taking place that the kids whose names were on those cars had hardly ever touched them. I'm not talking about cases where the kid and dad collaborated; more about that in a minute. I'm talking about cars clearly shaped (and shaped perfectly) using saws that no 10-year-old kid in the developed world is allowed to use. I'm talking about millimeter-perfect engineering in all kinds of shapes that 10-year-olds can often envision but rarely create so symmetrically. I'm talking about paint jobs that looked like they came out of a professional garage.

Now, I am aware that the experience of building a Pinewood Derby car is shared. This year, for example, my dad and Ian roughed out the shape of his car. Ian sanded it for days and painted it. He and I glued on weights and made sure the wheels were even. Ian lubricated the wheels. My wife painted the flourishes on the car and gave it the personality Ian wanted. This all happened over the course of a month or so. Then, yesterday morning, Ian got the car to weight by prying off some of the little lead pieces we'd glued to the bottom. Before weighing it in, he ran off to show his car to his friends. It was a cool-looking car, deep red, with the legend The Mad Monster across the top and cartoony bared teeth painted across its conical front.

But when the races started, there was never any doubt who was going to win.

*

It was ever thus, or words to that effect, said a friend of mine when I was ranting at him about this last night. Maybe so. But I've got a real problem with it, and the Cub Scouts need to do something.

DO YOUR BEST

That's the Cub Scout motto, right? Not

TURN YOUR SON INTO A VEHICLE FOR YOUR OWN HYPERCOMPETITIVE IDIOCY

or

DO AS MUCH AS YOU WANT TO UNTIL YOUR DAD GETS SICK OF YOUR CRAP AND FINISHES THE JOB HIMSELF

or

WIN

No. The motto is DO YOUR BEST.

I mean, yesterday I saw a father repeatedly pushing his son away while he worked on the son's car.

*

Those three cars I mentioned finished 1-2-3 in their division, well ahead of the rest. Ian's car won one heat, finished last in his other three heats, and didn't make the next round. Sour grapes? No. Twice in five years, Ian's car went on to the elimination rounds. We've done all right before, and I'm proud of how he learned a bit more each year about how to put the car together.

You know what else I'm proud of? That I can honestly look at each of those cars, from Green Lightning to Mad Monster, and say that he made them and he did his best.

And that's what brings me to the open-letter part of this screed:

Fathers of Cub Scouts.

When you bring a car to the Pinewood Derby and it's obvious that you made it with only minimal input from your son, the basic unfairness is reprehensible, but that's not even the worst of it. The worst of it is the message your actions transmit to your kids and everyone else in the pack.

You are teaching your son that it's okay to take credit for things he didn't do, and you are teaching my son that his honest effort will always be trumped by the people who are willing to cheat. And on top of that, you are teaching every kid there that the whole Cub Scout motto is, like so many other mottos adults teach to children, lip service to an ideal that adults don't really believe in. You might as well hold up two fingers and cross the fingers of your other hand behind your back.

The Pinewood Derby isn't about you, dads. It's about your sons and their fellow Scouts. It's about them doing their best, not you making sure they win. My son deserves better, and so does yours.

Cut it out. Give the Pinewood Derby back.

Sincerely,

A Proud and Angry Father of a Son Who Did His Best
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