“So, what did you do for your science project?”

That’s a question I heard a lot when I walked the gym floor at my fourth grader’s science fair a few weeks ago. It wasn’t the 9-year-olds asking it; it was their parents.

To be fair, this was a year of obvious change. Our children weren’t so little anymore. They could read, use a glue gun with only a little supervision, and they had their own ideas about how much “help” was too little or too much.

For the parents, the event wasn’t so much about scientific discovery as it was about understanding who our children had grown up to be now that some had reached double digits and others, such as mine, were counting down the days.

In the younger years, when these kids were 6, it was expected there’d be a lot of hand-holding. How might you do a comparison of the sugar content of breakfast cereals when your primary researchers would scarf down a bowl of Cocoa Pebbles the minute they were left alone with the box? And, certainly, if you wanted to show the capillary action of water in plants, and turn all those carnations blue and red, someone needed to keep the food coloring away from the dog.

Hand-holding was accepted. And if you went overboard, it was your fellow parents who’d long remember, not your kid.

“Let’s just say it involved three tables and flying objects,” a mother, who preferred to remain anonymous, told me when describing a project that took center stage when her own daughter was younger. The kids are now in middle school, but the story epitomizes the reality of an assignment that is displayed before an entire school community. To help or not to help might be the question, but everyone who walks by will judge your private decision.

My daughter is now a year away from middle school, and there weren’t as many thirsty carnations at her science fair, and certainly no flying objects. But there were a lot of us evaluating the role we played in our child’s experience, not just on that day but in the month of preparation.

In our case, I sat with my daughter one night and helped her narrow down her topic. Then I found a blog written by a science teacher that described a project using dried spaghetti and craft sticks to compare the strengths of bridges.

From there, I handed it off to her father.

About three weeks later, they came up from the basement with their work. They were still speaking to one another. That was as remarkable as the spaghetti bridges.

The colorful letters we bought for the tri-fold board didn’t stick to the cardboard, so in the end, my daughter used a marker, and her title was written in the imperfect but honest hand of a proud presenter.

With that tri-fold, her bridges, and cans of corn to test their strength, she took her place at a table during the science fair and greeted younger students who held clipboards, ready to take notes.

Each structure was tested with cans of corn. How many cans could a bridge made out of dried spaghetti hold? That, my daughter remembered, depended on how much material was used and in what design. Some bridges sank under the weight of one too many cans. Others were sturdy and strong.

I took a walk around to other tables. I spoke with one father whose child had soaked pennies in different liquids. A particular kind of soda had the power to remove a frightening amount of grime. Another mom stood by as her son coaxed a fish through an aquarium maze. She’d told him to be prepared for questions. And I ran into a mother who held fast to a “no help” policy and minced no words about her disappointment in the final result.

I came away from the project knowing a bit more about bridges but a lot more about the truth behind that old question: to help or not to help?

My fourth grader needed our guidance in a lot of ways: from helping her narrow down her interests, to taking her to the craft store to buy more glue. And, despite some turf wars, she appreciated her father’s company while she built a truss bridge out of noodles.

But she didn’t need me to suggest that the store-bought letters would look better on the board even if it required more glue, or to quiz her on the three principles of bridge strength every time we got in the car, or to round up some kindergarteners to watch the weaker bridges fall under the weight of canned corn.

When I stepped over the line, she made it clear, like the buzzer in the game Operation that tells you you’ve made a clumsy move. Back off, it says, and be more delicate next time.

The stare of a 9-year-old who thinks you’ve crossed the line, embarrassed her, or taken away her confidence is one that could send chills down the toughest spine. Who had time to worry about what the other parents thought; this was about knowing our own children.

Perhaps the atmosphere in that gym was abuzz with a parental awareness that middle school is on the horizon and our theme song may be that old Kenny Rogers song, The Gambler. We’d better figure out when to hold ’em. And when to walk away.

Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff blogs at The Educated Mom and is an editor at Mindprint Learning. Follow her on Twitter.

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