What the Pinewood Derby Taught Me About Parenting

Updated: Oct 9

Duncan in second grade with his hooptie.

My first taste of parental snowplowing, overparenting, overbearingness, or whatever word you use to describe a parent who does everything to ensure their child succeeds, came when my oldest son was a Cub Scout in the second grade. We were at a meeting and it was announced that the Pinewood Derby was going to be held in a few weeks.

For those of you unfamiliar with Cub Scouts, the Pinewood Derby is when scouts are given a small block of wood and they are asked to build a car and race it. If done right, the Pinewood Derby is a great opportunity for a parent to teach their child all sorts of lessons about creativity, imagination, planning, patience, woodworking, tools, delayed gratification, sportsmanship, safety and resilience.

I asked my son Duncan what he wanted to design. He was excited. He wanted the car to be red, blue and purple with dragon flames on it. This last part got him going and he wiggled, almost as if the dragon flames were tickling him and making him squirm.

I asked him to sketch the car’s shape and after 15 attempts, he got busy building. I allowed him to use a coping saw and he shaped the block of wood. Each day after school we worked on his car a little at a time eventually painting it and I will tell you, it was without a doubt, a very interesting looking car. It was a Pinewood Derby hooptie, but what made that car so great is that he designed it, built it, and painted it all on his own. It was truly his car.

Several weeks later we waited in line to get the car weighed and inspected. All cars have to have the same dimensions and weight. As we stood in line, I looked at some of the cars that the other boys were holding. Duncan’s was clearly one of only a handful of cars that were kid built. One boy’s car had axles held in place by scotch tape and there was so much dried wood glue on the car that it looked like a glazed donut.

The other kid-built car was jagged, cracked, and it looked like the kid attacked the block of wood with a saw, making it up as he went along. As the kid described the car it was apparent that each crack, chip and seemingly random cut had a purpose on the car (the cut towards the back of the vehicle was a wing that could make the car fly and some cuts on the top were to hide the machineguns). The kid’s imagination was awesome which I think is part of the adventure of building these things.

Outside of the three I mentioned, the other cars were incredible pieces of craftsmanship. The attention to detail was astonishing and the refinement on the cars was so advanced that I started to wonder if maybe there was something wrong with Duncan. This was my first derby as a dad, after all, and if the majority of the boys’ cars were so incredible, was my love for Duncan blinding me? Maybe he just lacked the skills? Or maybe I should have taught him more? Maybe the other dads were consultants for This Old House and passed on their woodworking legacy and I was falling short as a dad?

When we got to the race officials, one of the men took Duncan’s car with a look of disdain and the other seemed genuinely excited.

“Wow, look at that paint,” he said winking at me. “This car looks really fast.” Duncan started squirming. “You did a really nice job,” the man said. “You did too, dad.” Initially I thought the guy was implying something so insecurely, I responded.

“That’s all him. He built it, he painted it,” I said. “If it wins, he earned it. If he loses, well, he earned it,” I added. My ears got warm.

The man nodded in agreement.

“That’s what this is all about, but some of these dads don’t get it,” the man said as he chuckled. I smiled, not really understanding the prophetic impact of the man’s words.

In the race, Duncan’s car lost along with his fellow hooptie builders. They celebrated by playing with their cars on the floor, Duncan’s dragon and the glazed donut car falling victim to the sharpshooting kid with the hidden machineguns in his car. He chased them down after getting airborne, shooting them from above. They never had a chance. I was even shot in the leg as Duncan drove his car up my leg trying to evade the attack.

Later that night I wondered. Why did so many fathers clearly do the work for their sons? Was it their own insecurity? Did they want to insulate their sons from failure? Were they ultra-competitive? Did they really care that much about appearances? Were they that much better at teaching their sons about woodworking? I had taken two years of woodshop in junior high. I couldn’t be that bad. All sorts of stuff spun around in my head.

Since then, we have taught all four of our kids the value of ownership. They own their successes and their failures. They are not allowed to assign blame because they own their actions. That’s not to say they don’t try to cast blame, our kids aren’t perfect, but we don’t let them get away with it and the outward attacks are almost none existent in our home.

Most recently, because of a severe case of rectal immersion, Duncan missed several deadlines to apply for colleges that he really wanted to attend. We saw the icebergs get closer and closer and we did not sound the alarm to prevent the collision. Instead, we braced for impact and then had many conversations about what had happened and how he could have done things differently. Trust me, these were not simple conversations because his inaction cost him dearly, but the lessons stuck.

I wish I could tell you that not holding your kid’s hand as they walk through life is easy. I wish I could say that they always succeed, that they are brimming with confidence, and that they will become little Huxtable children, but that would be a lie. Doing everything for them is the easy way to do it. If your kid has a problem with school, it is easy to intervene and have a parent/teacher conference and ask the teacher for accommodations instead of talking to your child and getting them to understand what their options are to improve their grasping of the material in a particular class. It is harder to teach them study techniques or organizational skills and encouraging them to talk to the teacher and for them to seek tutoring. Infinitely harder is it to have your child rise up to the challenge instead of changing the environment for your child. It is easier to drop a hard class than to have them apply themselves and struggle. We focus too much on the end result it seems than on the journey. Is the objective the grade or the learning? In the Pinewood Derby, is the objective to win the race or to build the car? For Duncan, it was to try his best to build a great car that he could be proud of and if he won the race, great.

When Duncan was a third grader, we went through the Pinewood Derby process again. We found ourselves standing in line waiting to get checked in and again a small handful of cars were clearly built by the boys while the majority of the cars seemed as if they were built by North Pole elves. Perfect. Duncan had once again, constructed his own car and I fully expected him to lose again. He was, after all, racing against cars built by adults and many of these cars were sleek, aerodynamic and designed to reduce drag. Did I mention I overheard a conversation where one dad was telling another that he ran some numbers through a computer at work to get the right balance? He was an engineer apparently.

In the den races Duncan lined up his car against kids in his age/grade group, but as the gate dropped, so did my jaw as Duncan’s hooptie raced down the track, igniting what seemed like an invisible karma rocket that surged it forward passing all the other cars. He won. I was floored. I couldn’t believe it. His car advanced to the finals and in the end, he won first place in his age group and third place overall in the pack.

Duncan rocking the hardware after winning some Pinewood Derby races in third grade.

Over the years we’ve watched Duncan do his share of stupid things. He’s forgotten birthdays, holidays, failed to turn in assignments, forgotten to study for exams, missed deadlines, been an irresponsible employee, bad teammate, poor leader, meh volunteer, dropped a million balls, and he has been unprepared for hundreds of things. He is a teenager after all. The common denominator in all of those failures was Duncan. He owned all of those shortcomings because long ago we stepped out of this way and allowed him to manage his own life in the same way we allowed him to manage the construction of his Pinewood Derby cars. Duncan has designed and constructed his life all on his own. We’ve merely kept him safe, offering guard rails along the way, but he’s made his own mistakes and successes.

While he has been a typical teenager in so many ways, Duncan has built a good little life, on his terms, with his own effort. In fairness, since I mention his shortcomings, I should also mention his achievements which are all of his own doing. He is an Eagle Scout, he was inducted by unanimous vote (first time in the troop’s history) into the Order of the Arrow (Scouting’s National Honor Society) and he is a member of the National Honor Society. He played football, earned his varsity letter in lacrosse and he is a National Hispanic Scholar. He’s been a good brother and he’s been a wonderful son.

Duncan leaves for college in six months and I continue to struggle with thoughts of preparedness. Have I taught him enough? Have I shown him what he needs to know? I am reliving the night of his first Pinewood Derby race all over again, questions swirling in my head although nothing has really changed. He’s always been in control. He will just be farther away now.

I’m excited for him. He’s earned a full tuition scholarship to the University of Nebraska and out on the great plains a whole new world awaits him and there will be experiences, a new life, a new race to run and the opportunity for him to design, construct and build himself into something better. In Lincoln, he will continue to work on the project that his mother and I started in 2002 when she gave him the gift of life. It is a surprising finish line for his first 18 years which left me once again with my mouth wide open in awe of the fact that he somehow managed to build himself into something he can be proud of.

I’m going to miss him and it would be futile to try and list all of the things I will miss about him. As usual, we will give him his space and let him own this experience, mistakes and all. I know he will build something good out of it and I can’t help but feel the same pride that he likely had when he brought home those Pinewood Derby trophies.

I’m proud that Nebraska offered him a full ride, that’s a great trophy, but I’m even more proud of who he is and the man he is going to become. He’s run a great race.

He is my hooptie.

My son Holden's Wii remote control Pinewood Derby car. The theme of the car race that year was video games. It was recognized for creativity.


©2020 by Steve Alvarez, Burb Dad.