I’ve read countless articles about how important it is to let your child do projects on her own. It’s also a hot topic among the mothers in my daughter’s class. At the beginning of the school year, her new 4th grade teacher told us parents that it was time to let go, let our children grow and develop on their own, and suffer (or enjoy the rewards of) the consequences of their own actions (or inactions). We’ve been really good with this so far this year. We check her homework only when she asks, or quiz her on spelling words upon request. We’ve been very hands-off, which has given us a lot more free time in the early evening and has made her more responsible. She gets good grades, so there’s little room for worry.
This past weekend, though, I fell off the wagon. I traded my haughty, “I let my child do her own projects,” mother-of-the-year award in for the worst of kind of helicoptering parenting. I blame Saturn.
Right before Christmas Zoe told us about an upcoming science/English project. Each child chose a planet (maximum of three children per planet, which meant someone was getting stuck with Mercury, which is so not a cool planet) and had to do research, write a report, and then draw a picture or make a model of their planet. Zoe, of course, chose the most popular planet among 10-year-olds: Saturn. And my first thought was, “Oh God, the rings. The rings! How in the heck are we going to attach rings to a sphere?!” And so the worrying began, along with my steep decline into control-freak over-helping. And by over-helping I mean pretty much doing a huge chunk of the project myself.
The kids have been doing research in school, and Zoe had been showing us her notes along the way. I wasn’t worried at all about the report part of the project, but the model kept me up at night. I searched the interwebs for help, and found an adorable (and easy) little Saturn model made from a small foam ball and an old CD. I showed Zoe, and of course she wrinkled up her nose and deemed it “too small.” Of course.
As most people who dread something do, I put off the project until this past weekend, even though it’s due Friday. I just couldn’t tackle it during the holidays. Zoe and I had Monday off for MLK Day, and I figured three good days would be plenty of time to wrap this up. Then M scheduled a family eagle-watching trip on Saturday, so that left us two days. Cool. No worries. We can do this. Then he left for Shanghai, and I crumbled under Saturn’s weight, even though it’s a gaseous planet and therefore very light.
We hit Michael’s on Sunday to pick up a foam ball. Foam balls, it turns out, are in the floral department, not the planet model department, and are not cheap. I once again wondered if grade-school teachers get a kick-back from Michael’s for creating all these projects. I felt lucky to find two half-spheres that fit together, which meant that I wouldn’t be worried about sawing one giant foam ball in half, which I was fairly sure would look as though a drunk in detox had handled. By this point, I was sweating and willing to pay whatever amount of money it took to make this easier. Then we found a piece of sparkly card stock that was large enough to cut a circle for Saturn’s rings. I considered myself genius for finding an easy way to do this: sandwich the ring-circle between the two hemispheres and glue together. Viola! Easy-peasy.
Turns out, the whole thing is not easy-peasy. It’s stupid hard. It’s exasperatingly excruciatingly difficult. But let me not get ahead of myself.
We headed over to the spray paint aisle and Zoe chose her colors: a rusty red for the base and a sheer blue, for the ice that swirls around Saturn’s gaseous atmosphere. We dropped $45 on Saturn ingredients and headed home, and I felt confident and relaxed for the last time in 48 hours. (The money rankles me, but it was worth every penny if the project was fairly easy.)
That afternoon, we I started The Project from Hell.
Turns out that spray paint needs 40+ degrees. I checked the weather. It wasn’t forecast to be above 20 until well past when Saturn is due. Okay, Plan B. We I would have to paint inside. The only place I felt comfortable doing that was in our fairly-packed unfinished storage room in the basement. I wheeled the giant chair racks out and cleared a space in the middle, then set up a few large cardboard boxes as a paint hood. A dark, unventilated paint hood. Brilliant. Zoe sat next to me, shaking the first can of paint. I pried off the lid and told her, “I’ll get this started so you can see how to do it, then you can take over.” I pressed the nozzle on the can, sprayed a few swipes, and took my finger off. The paint kept spraying. And spraying and dripping and spraying. I could see this was gonna be a one-take shot. I waved her out of the room as the mist engulfed us, and then turned my fingers rust red with sparkles as I turned the hemispheres and tried to get an even coating while gasping for air and cursing. We were off to a great start.
Once the base coat was on, I brought her back in to do the “ice” streaks. She could barely push the button on the spray can, so I ended up doing most of those, too. This was definitely turning out to be more of my project than hers, and I wasn’t happy about it. We let the paint dry and turned our attention to other things.
The next day, Saturn’s two halves came upstairs and Zoe chose a large plate to trace the ring. She cut it out, and we super-glued one hemisphere to the bottom. It worked beautifully, and I saw the end in sight. After it set, we went to super-glue the top, on the shiny side of the posterboard. Turns out that Saturn’s rings are impervious to super glue. I didn’t know anything was impervious to super glue. That’s what makes it so super. It sticks everything together. I started sweating again, and the expletives made another appearance. I ended up stuffing a bunch of Elmer’s Glue into the crevasse on one side of the top hemisphere, between the foam and the ring, and then held everything together, still sweating, and prayed to whomever the god of foam planets is that it would stick. After a few moments, I realized that it was going to take a lot longer to set than I wanted to sit there. I had Zoe bring two of her book box sets over and we braced Saturn between them. The books, heavy as they are, weren’t enough. We ended up using the two book boxes, book shelves, and a heavy chair.
Then I left Saturn there, stuck between “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “The Dork Diaries,” for three days. I was afraid to take it out. I reviewed the directions for the project and saw that the planet model was supposed to be the student’s interpretation of it. So I shrugged and decided that if all else failed, I’d place the Saturn pieces in a box and instruct Zoe to tell her teacher that her interpretation is “Saturn Deconstructed.” This is what happens when your mother is full of blarney in public relations. I removed Saturn this morning and it seems to hold. A friend, whose child created Mars, texted a photo of the finished Mars, which is displayed on a labeled base and has the two moons of Phobos and Deimos sticking off it. Impressive. Saturn has 53 known moons and 9 awaiting confirmation. (I know this because of my Saturn project I just completed for 4th grade). So, yeah. No moons. We have rings, though!
Zoe has another project due. It’s a “how to” book report. After I lectured her on thinking ahead and choosing a project that is reasonable, she found a simple recipe for blondies in one of my cookbooks. She wanted to make them Monday night. Coming on the heels of Saturn, I agreed on the condition that I wouldn’t do a darn thing. I sat at the kitchen island with my head on the counter, rising only to snap photos for her presentation. She did it all herself, and did a great job.
If only I had taken that route with Saturn. Clearly I learned more from this project than my child.