Is there any homework assignment that fills a mother’s heart with dread more than a diorama?
Child Two’s 4th-grade class is currently learning about the Inuit and each child has to create a diorama—a three-dimensional scene in a box—showing how they lived. They’ve been given a pages-long set of criteria to follow and three weeks to get it done. And parents are welcome to help. Oh, joy.
Some parents have taken the invitation to help to amazing levels, referring to the project as “mine” instead of “my kid’s.” My husband and I, who are both ridiculously overeducated, have always vowed that we won't push our kids to be perfect students. We’ve watched a good friend deal with the fallout of his mathematician father’s harsh expectations, and we know people who make their children play soccer year after year because they—the parents—love it, even though their kids hate running around in the rain kicking a ball. We want our kids to feel that they’re free to follow their own paths even if they’re different from ours.
And I don’t want my kids to be plagued with the perfectionism that sometimes makes me lose all sense of reasonableness. While we encourage them to do their best, we tell them that the learning is more important than the grades and that doing your best doesn’t mean being perfect.
We certainly help our kids when they ask for it, and sometimes when they don’t but we know they really need it. But we do not do their work for them, ever, and if they’re determined not to take our advice, we let them do it their way, even though we know we’re right (of course).
Child Two brought her box home a couple of weeks ago and put it in her bedroom, where it sat and sat. When she decided it was time to get to work, she first made a plan, but she was so overwhelmed with it all that she worked at a snail’s pace. Painting her mountains—something that would normally take her half an hour—took days, interrupted by frequent breaks to play with the cats.
As the deadline loomed, she started asking for help. There were some things that she just doesn’t have the skills to do alone and others that involved sharp implements and the hot glue gun. For the last several days, that diorama has demanded more attention than a cranky two year old.
Disregarding my suggestion to use toothpicks to hold together her salt-dough people, she’s had recurring trouble with body parts falling off—one poor guy has had his legs glued on at least three times. This morning, a mere 24 hours before the due date and too late to make new people, she discovered a horrifying scene of heads, legs, and arms on her work table. The dough is not dry enough and now that they've been glued, it's too late to put the figures in the oven. As I write, they lay on a baking tray over the oven vent with the oven on low. When I make a cup of tea, which I do whenever I encounter a really difficult sentence or a particularly boring passage or I’m overwhelmed with my workload (see where Child Two gets this habit?), I blow-dry the little bodyless heads and headless bodies while I wait for the kettle.
Assuming she can get her people to stop spontaneously decomposing, she’s almost done. The goal is to keep everything in one piece until the teacher has seen it. If all those little people want to lose their heads (and arms) after that, that’s okay.
Child Two, who had already learned about the Inuit way of life in class, learned some more lasting lessons during this assignment:
1. If you leave a cup of brush-cleaning water on your work table, a cat will knock it over into your scrapbooking box.
2. If you leave plates with wet paint unattended, you will end up with yellow paw prints on the carpet, blue ones on your chair, and brown ones in your textbook.
3. Acrylic paint can’t be removed from a textbook once it’s dry.
4. To be on the safe side, just go ahead and close the door whenever you leave the room.
5. It’s better to start right away and finish early than to start late and be stressed out.
6. Sometimes you have to scale back on your plans.
7. Even though it’s stressful, making a diorama is still more fun than spelling drills.
8. Your mother knows a thing or two. Listen to her advice.
And I (re)learned something. Some of the traits that drive me nuts in my kids they’ve learned by example—from me. As I talk to Child Two about time management and perfectionism, I realize that I’m talking to myself too.
Now it’s time to make a cup of tea and blow-dry some body parts.