Cub Scout Pinewood Derby results, or how we learned to lose

While the Batmobile didn’t place, my son and I learned a great deal.

The long-anticipated Pinewood Derby was held this morning, and it was a smash success. About 75 people attended.

The pack had 24 cars entered – a 50 percent increase over last year – and the competition was tough. Our Batmobile – while it looked really cool – was definitely not the fastest car out there. I didn’t get to see the exact placement numbers, but we finished fourth in pretty much every heat we ran in, so that put us ahead of about a third of the cars, and behind about two thirds.

Hardly a fitting end for a superhero, but there’s always next year.

While the lad and I were disappointed about the performance of our car, we both took comfort in very different things. For him, it was about watching his friends succeed, since one of our fellow Tiger Cubs won the whole competition – which included everybody from grade 1 (us Tigers) to grade 5. For me, it was seeing that at least one organization allows kids to actually lose, even when we were the losers.

This topic touches on something that particularly annoys me about our public education system. At some point, we as a nation seem to have become more concerned about bruising a child’s ego than about teaching the real-life lesson that not everybody wins. In an environment where everybody gets an award for participating, awards lose their meanings. Even the Boy Scouts of America seem apologetic when giving guidlines for holding a Pinewood Derby. On the scouting.org Web site, you’ll read the following:

In general, the Scouting program tries to avoid events with a single winner or even class winners. The Cub Scout standard is, after all, that a boy should do his best. We do not, for example, tie advancement to whether a Cub Scout beats the other members of his den in a foot race, but rather to whether he betters his previous standards. The primary methods of the Cub Scouting program—including the goal of personal achievement—are based on individual achievement and accomplishment rather than individual victory at the expense of another’s defeat.

So then, how exactly does BSA arrive at endorsing an event with clear winners and losers? The site continues by saying…

It is very clear that any boy who can cheer on a friend in a derby race, when his own car has been previously eliminated, must be said to have had his character developed, if not his car-building skills. But finally, and probably most convincingly, participating in the derby is fun. This is especially true if participation is stressed, and personal achievement is very broadly defined and rewarded.

Please understand that I’ve no quarrel with BSA. I’m a Cub Scout leader because I believe in what BSA can accomplish and will accomplish for my son. I see no merit in belittling a kid for losing, and as a leader I’ll provide acitivities that mesh with BSA standards on that point. And I agree with almost everything in that second excerpt.

What I don’t agree with is the “personal achievement is very broadly defined and rewarded” phrase. While I wouldn’t want every activity my son does in scouting to be a cutthroat competition, as a parent, I want to see kids fail from time to time, so that they’ll know how to handle more serious disappointment later in life. I don’t want my son to walk away with a trophy he didn’t earn – or he’ll end up expecting trophies he didn’t earn later in life.

Any adult will tell you that life won’t even be fair, let alone give a trophy to everyone who shows up, but our educational system – and, for many of us, our own parenting styles - isn’t teaching kids that anymore. It is for that reason that I’m pleased that the Pinewood Derby is structured the way it is, and that the lad and I had the opportunity to lose.


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