I grew up on a cattle ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. After spending nearly 20 years working as a copywriter in advertising, my first book, Confessions of a Slacker Mom, came out in spring of 2004 and made the San Francisco Chronicle's best-seller list. My second book, Confessions of a Slacker Wife, was released in spring of 2005.

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School Projects from Hell

My sister-in-law was telling me recently about a school project assigned to her daughter in kindergarten. This was the cheerful instruction the teacher sent home on a sheet of bright yellow paper:

Bake a cookie which
represents the Great Plains ~
Bring to class on Monday!

Once I stopped laughing I felt a flood of relief that she was the mom in this situation and not me. Because that project description alone puts me at a total loss. I come up blank. It’s not that I don’t know what is meant by the term “Great Plains.” I can conjure up images of buffalos and prairie grass and big blue skies with all the rest of them. But cripes. As part of a cookie?

That’s not the biggest problem I have with the project she described, though. Baking a cookie, regardless of what region of the country it will — in some fantasy world of the teacher’s — represent, is just not a job that a kindergartner can actually do. Baking, sauteing, grilling . . . these are not jobs for 5- and 6-year olds. As far as I’m concerned these are jobs for people on the Food Network. Or, in their absence, for good old mom.

I’m not opposed to getting involved with my kids’ schoolwork or even helping them with it from time to time. But it really confounds me when the grand-scheme projects which are sent home for them to create are obviously far beyond their grade level, and by design must be at least partly done by the parents.

For one thing, what seems to so often happen next is that the projects are not just “partly” done by the parents, they’re completely done by the parents. I know this because at least at our school, projects of the same type as geographically specific cookies are put on display in the classroom or the hallway for everyone in the class if not the whole school to view. And I have to tell you it’s easy even for neophytes such as myself to observe that quite a few of these projects must have been done by full-fledged adults.

I think it could certainly be useful if my children understood how to delegate tasks, but other than that I just don’t know how much a kid is learning from a project that Mom or Dad does for them.

I don’t think this phenomenon is confined to just those elaborate, once-a-year type of projects, either. I was interviewed by a reporter for a Mother’s Day story last spring and she told me that in the course of her research for the story, she learned that many colleges and universities are now putting more of an emphasis on SAT scores than on GPAs. You can argue whether or not that’s a good idea but the reason, she was told, is that colleges no longer believe that GPAs typically represent the work of the student because the student too often isn’t doing the work. The parents are doing it. Well-meaning parents who, in the interest of being involved and supportive, can become just a little too involved.

Personally I would like to opt out of this trend and let my son and daughter do their own school work, and even the big projects, under their own power, with me supporting and encouraging them in the background. Opting out is easier said than done, I realize. If every other kid has the help of their parents with their homework, then you worry that your son or daughter, doing the work for themselves, might not do the same job as the grown ups and will end up looking like they’re some kind of underachiever.

And it’s pretty disheartening to walk by the class projects display and see your first-grader’s work stacked up against the work of a 42-year old structural engineer. All I can offer my little boy in a case like that is that even if I had done his project for him, I would have been outdone by the 42-year old engineer myself, so maybe it’s just as well.

I guess I just have to be happy that the Great Plains cookie project was assigned to my sister-in-law’s kid rather than my own. That it was her at the toystore late that afternoon, looking desperately for plastic buffaloes small enough to fit on a cookie, and not me. I need time to develop some contacts at the Food Network before I tackle a project like that.

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