It's that time of year again: Pinewood Derby! The Cub Scout motto is "Do Your Best". But it's also important to recognize true excellence. Our pack does a good job of balancing those values by giving trophies to every participant, but bigger trophies instead for cars that win for speed or craftsmanship. Even boys with slow cars and no particular skill in woodworking stand a chance of getting an award for "Most Creative".

When I was a Cub Scout, my father showed me how to use the tools and more or less turned me loose on a block of wood. I can't say my efforts were very good and I was always amazed that other cars came out so much nicer than my own. It wasn't until much later that I discovered the truth: other fathers had a much more "hands-on" attitude than my own did. I can't know for sure, but it's hard to shake a suspicion that beautifully carved, sanded, painted, and polished cars have far more to do with the work of the fathers than anything their sons did.

On the one hand, it's frustrating to see children discouraged by losing to (basically) an adult. But on the other hand, some fathers and sons just enjoy working together on a task like making a great-looking car. My son and I prefer to spend time doing other things, like playing board games. Seems like sour grapes to complain that other families enjoy spending more time on Pinewood Derby than we do.

Does it make any sense to explain all of this when we notice boys who are disappointed when their cars perform poorly?

  • This is also something that happens in the Lego Robotics tournaments. A good friend has a couple of sons who compete, and he gets very frustrated because several of the parents take over their sons' programming (and control of the entire process), leaving the kids feeling disassociated from the competition. He has tried to explain to the fathers but they aren't interested in listening. In the long run, it's their kids who will be deprived of a potentially great experience. Commented Sep 7, 2018 at 18:39

2 Answers 2


I think it's important to tell the boys who made their own. I remember feeling the same way my first pinewood derby, and my own parents and one or two leaders took me aside and explained the situation. Mostly what I couldn't understand is if everyone knew about it, why was it allowed to continue without those cars being disqualified? Be prepared to answer that question. Some other parents, apparently feeling bad for me as my dad seemingly abandoned me to my own devices, took me aside and gave me tips which I used to improve cars in subsequent years.

The result was in subsequent derbies I considered boy-made cars and dad-made cars to be two completely distinct categories, which helped me feel vindicated. I don't know why packs don't just own up to this and let dads enter their own cars.

I took the challenge and learned and improved with each one, until I won my final derby. Actually, I'm not 100% sure I did win, because I might have considered dad-made cars not to count, but I at least placed highly and beat most of the dad-made cars.

What surprised me was even on years I lost, some of my friends who beat me but whose dads made their cars expressed jealousy at me being able to make my own. Perhaps that unpleasant memory for them is why the tradition is allowed to continue.

Who I really feel bad for is the truly-talented boys, who do a great job carving, but you can never be 100% sure their dads didn't help too much. I had a friend who I was pretty sure fit into this category, but the corruption forever tainted his achievement in the eyes of other competitors.

It was really my first exposure to the idea that the system is sometimes stacked against the ethical, that you should do the right thing, even if it takes a while longer to get ahead. That's an important lesson to learn, albeit uncomfortable.

  • While I think it would make a lot of sense for packs to let dads enter their own cars, I'm pretty sure the BSA is too strict to let that happen. Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 3:23

Seems like a really good opportunity for an excellent conversation with your son about what he derives enjoyment from. We had a question not too long ago about 'competition anxiety' that had some really good answers dealing with the fact that winning is one goal, but not the only goal. Does your son primarily enjoy the competition for winning? Or for the effort it takes to get there? If he's old enough to be in cub scouts, then he's old enough to have some basic understanding of these concepts - but young enough to still be moldable.

Ask him what he enjoys. Does he enjoy designing a car and painting it nicely? Does he enjoy learning woodworking? Does he enjoy racing the car and doing the engineering side of things (making it aerodynamic)? Or does he do it solely for the social aspect - his friends like doing it, so he wants to participate, but if it were up to him (and nobody else cared) he wouldn't do it at all? Each of those are different goals, and suggest a different level of involvement on your part as well as a different level of effort on his part.

If he's just doing it so that he doesn't look like a non-participater, then he shouldn't worry too much about how it compares - make something that's good enough and be happy for your friends who enjoy it more. If he does enjoy one aspect of creation, then give him the tools and understanding of how to improve that aspect. In particular, assuming he's a Wolf or Bear, he'll still have a few years to grow and develop better cars - so tell him that he should track his progress over years, and each year learn from the previous years and improve the car.

At the end of the day, as a parent, we're supposed to encourage effort, not achievement, except insomuch as the one leads to the other. Encouraging effort encourages our children to try difficult tasks; encouraging achievement (alone) encourages them to try easy tasks. Focusing on why he's doing this helps you focus on encouraging those aspects of effort that he's interested in; at the end of the day, the actual race isn't really all that important. Who wins or loses, what other people do, isn't what it's about; it's about making the car. If this was something he truly aspired to, then he should make the effort to learn it; and if he has a disadvantage in that (from parental involvement), well, that's how life will be - unless you're Bill Gates or similar, he's going to have a disadvantage in every aspect of life to others with more well off families. Learning to do the best with what you have, and then learning to be happy with that and not envious of others who have it easier/better, is a pretty important life lesson.

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