Whose project is this anyway?

How to empower young people and avoid taking over.

A friend recently commented on her visit to a school science fair. A large number of the projects were clearly completed by adults and her son’s project looked insignificant by comparison. She wondered if she was a bad mom for not helping more. Does this situation sound familiar? Well intentioned adults often get carried away when helping a young person with a school or 4-H project and soon the work becomes the adult’s while the child becomes a helper in the process. How can parents be helpful without crossing the line?

According to Michigan State University Extension, it is important to understand that young people need to have relationships with adults who will provide support and guidance. Parents and other caring adults should provide encouragement and be willing to demonstrate a task or brainstorm with a young person while ensuring that the youth has complete ownership of the project. Pass or fail, win or lose, the young person should know that the work is theirs. When we take over a project, we send the message that the young person isn’t capable, smart enough or can’t do a good enough job. We also send a message that the grade or winning is more important than learning and trying.

Youth also need to try new things and sometimes fail. Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed discussed how failures build character in young people. Sure, it can be difficult to watch a young person struggle. To prevent the possible pain of failure, we may ultimately be making choices that can hurt a child rather than help them. Consider the science fair example. How much did the young people learn when their parents completed their projects? If the winning project was completed by a parent, how does the child feel? We need to teach young people the value of hard work and how good it feels to complete a project, even if it isn’t perfect. Youth grow by conquering difficult situations.

Empowering a young person requires adults to let go of power and take on an equal role in a relationship. Do not do something for the young person if they can do it themselves. If a task is developmentally too advanced for a young person, it may be appropriate to step in. If the young person is capable, it is more appropriate to teach, model or encourage the young person. This is how people learn best. Mistakes will be made and sometimes feelings will be hurt, but young people are resilient. Michigan 4-H Youth Development values experiential learning which is a way to help a young person process a learning experience.

The next time you are tempted to take over a project, take a step back. While it might be easier to do the project yourself, the young person will learn much more and grow from doing the work themselves with your support and guidance.

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