How Much Help to Give

how-much-helpHow Much Help Should A Parent Give?

Although there are many examples in the comics about parents who stand proudly by “their” science fair projects with a blue ribbon, or who ask the judges why “they” did not win, most parents instinctively know just how much help to give before a project becomes “theirs” — instead of their child’s.

Interestingly, parents who help too much are the exception rather than the rule. As a matter of fact, these days parents are often too afraid to help at all. But would you send your child out to play a game of soccer without ever sending them to practice with the coach? Would you expect your child to play the violin without ever taking lessons? Science projects need coaching and mentoring. Even researchers at the university level have mentors.

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Keeping Your Child Going

There are some easy ways to keep your child going and prove that your child did the work.

From the very beginning, have your children do SOME of the work in their own handwriting. Even little ones can make simple lists, draw pictures to represent their ideas and steps, and color in graphs. Although you may later choose to help your child format some of these things in a more final form, these notes and rough drafts should be included in the “lab notebook.”

Judges love to see messy beginnings and rough drafts. PLEASE include even the mistakes and false starts. You can help your child with the typing. Just make sure that whatever you type, they are sitting next to you and dictating to you.

Plan out a section to complete each week

The limit of your child’s attention span is the limit of help you give at any one time. If you are helping your child to plan or conduct a part of the experiment, stop when the fidgeting begins to distract from the thinking process or doing of the step. Simply say, “Whew, looks like we need a break. Let’s work on this later. Let me know when you are ready.” And then wait — but not too long.

One of the most surprising and yet most common comments from the parents of students in high school who make it to the international level of competition is that even they had to help their children “get going.” No matter how talented or dedicated a child may be, parents must remember that they are children. Children will need structure and timelines to get everything in their busy lives done.

Don’t be afraid to set up time frames to work on the project or suggest that the TV could go off for an hour so that the next step could get done. After all, YOU are the parent, and can set rules in your own house.

It is your job to see that everything is in place to get the job done, but not do it yourself.

Always talk to your child about the project in terms of “your project” and what “you did,” never “We should …” or “Our project is about… ” When your child talks to others, make sure they always say “my project” because you did not do it for them.

Keep in mind that every great scientist had a mentor, and your child deserves no less.

Your child is an individual. Give as much or as little help as your child needs to get the project done. The rewards are worth every moment that you spend together. In fact, one of the greatest rewards is the memories you have of spending time with your child.

Tips from parents of past winners

Have you ever wondered what it was like to be Albert Einstein’s mother? Or to be the one that took a young Galileo out at night to see the stars? Your son or daughter is on the brink of a new discovery: finding out just what they are capable of in the world of science.

The parents of recent science fair winners were recently interviewed and asked their advice about competing in the science fair. Here’s what they said:

“Don’t be afraid to help them. Even the most famous of scientists need support somewhere along the way.”

“Watch what your child is interested in. Help them wonder about it and dream about what might be different if they changed one thing. Let children study what fascinates them. Spend lots of time at this stage and the rest will be easy later on. Doing a project on something that bores your child will be deadly for both of you!”

“Don’t use the ideas from Science Fair Project books or ideas that you did back when you were in school. Try to avoid encouraging the testing out of products. They have all been done a hundred times and the judges have seen it all already.”

“Use the Scientific Method step-by-step. It works.”

“Winning isn’t everything. Just doing a project together is its greatest reward. Keep in mind it is all about the learning.”

One of the Nobel Prize winners recently admitted that although he often entered his local science fair, he never won. But because he entered every year, he learned to love science and to test out his own ideas. Maybe that is the best advice for parents.

How to Help

Use this table from Science Buddies to help you decide some other places where you can offer some help.


Every Child. Thinking Critically. Solving Problems.