Parenting Lessons from the Maker Faire

Parenting Lessons from the Maker Faire


The way you approach making says a lot about how you approach life. Especially if you’re a parent.

Every year, my daughter and I and our young makers club participate in our local Maker Faire by bringing paper, fabric and simple circuit projects to share with our community. We help hundreds of kids create projects that call for perseverance, crafting, and problem solving. We also have their parents assisting.

By now I’m an old hand at these projects. But this last time, I learned volumes while observing the kids, parents, and even myself as we reacted to the challenges of making soft circuits.

The Kids

Some kids were passive. And that’s okay. When a project’s first step is to “decorate your heart out,” there is plenty of room for individual style. One child might spend a long time selecting just the right decorations or even making his own. Another might quickly glue a paper cutout to the card in order to rush ahead to the electronics part. Personal interest sets the pace.

Some kids were adventurous. They grabbed batteries and LEDs and put them together however they wished; these makers completely ignored the wonderful learning opportunity I had crafted for them. They walked away happy with their creations, or asked questions about why some LEDs didn’t light up. That, of course, gave me the opportunity to encourage them to experiment and learn the answers.

Finally, some kids were compliant, making the cards because their parents wanted them to. They mustered a desire to cut and glue, while their parents anxiously waited for them to perform "engineering” and create a circuit. These children often appreciated a goody bag of additional decorations to take home so they could perfect their artwork later.

As the Faire went on, I became increasingly dissatisfied with the overly prescriptive approach I was taking towards completing the cards–due to the overwhelming number of participants and their waiting adults. There simply wasn’t enough time to to let all the kids struggle with puzzles as they should. I needed a better way for them to experience both the challenges and the rewards embedded in the project.

So I started to pay closer attention to how kids responded to my explanations of circuits. What wasn’t I communicating? I began to emphasize key points by asking questions they could figure out fairly quickly, but which still gave them the chance to experience that “fiero” moment of discovery. For example, I asked what we should do about the “air gap” between the conductive tape on the paper and the LED lead that was resting just above it. Even 4-year-olds quickly figured out they could tape it down!

That day we made wonderful improvements to a project we had been doing for years.

The Parents

Like the kids, the parents had different reactions towards the work at hand.

Some parents were impatient and clearly just wanted the exercise to be over. Their kids responded to them in kind; some declared their work done, others slowed down and became increasingly helpless, requiring more step-by-step instruction.

Some adults were rapt, enjoying watching their kids play and struggle and overcome. They were just as happy to look at every stage of the decorating as they were to see that LED finally light up.

Some were grateful, giving us thanks not just for providing an activity but for treating their precocious kids as intelligent, capable individuals without either patronizing or shaming them.

Most were engaged. They sat next to their toddlers, preschoolers, and young kids and encouraged their work, providing only the minimum amount of support necessary to prevent frustration from overwhelming their children.

But some were invasive. Perhaps they were motivated by the fear that their kids would not appear sufficiently competent or courteous. Or maybe they were trying to protect them from failure. I heard comments like, “Why don’t you put that there,” and, “If you put the dog there he will be floating in the air–that’s not right,” and, “Here, let me do this part.”

One young boy started off highly involved, joyfully making a mess and doing things his own way. After withstanding repeated waves of “help” from a well-meaning parent who wanted him to do it “right,” the child left in tears.

I would like to feel self-righteous about how these vignettes made me cringe, but unfortunately I live in a glass house. To a certain degree, I recognized a piece of myself in all of these parenting scenarios.

While helping young makers discover the joy of creating that day, I learned my own valuable lesson: Be mindful of how I parent when my kids are exploring an interest–any interest.

Every child is a maker. And every parent holds the key to helping her child retain and develop a maker’s creativity, persistence, optimism, and ownership of his work.

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