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7 Lessons Learned From The Pinewood Derby

This sponsored post sharing my son’s Pinewood Derby lessons is sponsored by Boy Scouts of America. All opinions and experiences are our own.

Pinewood Derby car designed to look like the Pinewood Derby track

I write this as my son is packing for a weekend Boy Scout campout, and I think that’s fitting. He’s packing. I’m not. He’s now in seventh grade and moving up the ranks of Boy Scouts with an eventual goal to become an Eagle Scout, but the lessons he learned from his years as a Cub Scout doing the Pinewood Derby each year stick with him.

He’s not a perfect kid – no one is. He sometimes forgets about a homework assignment, and his room is a mess regularly. I remain proud of him and the man he’s becoming. He has a huge heart, and he continues to gain the skills he needs to become a successful, independent adult. His Pinewood Derby lessons encapsulate many of those skills, and I wouldn’t take back a moment of his participation.

These Pinewood Derby lessons are just one reason we love Boy Scouts. I shared earlier so many other benefits from Boy Scouts throughout the year. I just hope he maintains his momentum to eventually earn his Eagle Scout rank.

Seven Pinewod Derby Lessons My Son Learned

Pinewood Derby finish line

It’s important to be a good loser – and a good winner

My son’s first Pinewood Derby experience came as a first grader. That first Pinewood Derby car aimed at speed, thinking he could easily win. He and my dad worked hard on that car. Granted, Grandpa did the actual cutting of the car for safety reasons, but at my son’s direction. My son did the sanding and painting – and glued on some LEGO pieces for decoration.

The day of the race, my son’s car wasn’t fast. It wasn’t the slowest car on the track that day, but he won no awards. For a first grader with Asperger’s who convinced himself he’d win the trophy, that was devastating. At first, he didn’t want to talk to his fellow Scouts. He just wanted to go home and fought not to cry. Both his friends and older Scouts came over to him to tell him how they loved the LEGO addition to his car. They told him how cool they thought it looked, and they offered to play race their cars on the floor, just for fun.

My son’s face slowly cleared, and he learned a great lesson about sportsmanship that day. He may have lost, but he learned not to sulk. Winning wasn’t the important thing. Competing and having fun mattered more. Later, when he had a trophy, he was the Scout finding things about other cars to compliment. No one loves losing, but learning to lose gracefully – and win gracefully – is one of the Pinewood Derby lessons I cherish.

There are multiple paths to success

That first year, my son wanted to have the fastest car. He quickly learned that speed isn’t his skill. My son happens to be my creative child. He noticed that kids liked his LEGO additions. After that first year, he focused primarily on design. He quickly figured out his strengths and capitalized on them.

That next year, he created a very cool RV, inspired by my family’s summer vacation. It looked as much like the RV we rented as he could make it. When he arrived at the Pinewood Derby competition, he immediately garnered compliments. He won first place for design, though he didn’t place in the speed competition. When he went to regionals, he again did well. He figured out an alternate way to success. It wasn’t the first path he expected, but he discovered what works for him and applied his Pinewood Derby lessons to other aspects of his life, too.

Pinewood Derby car with a LEGO

Success today doesn’t guarantee success tomorrow

When he won the design with his RV Pinewood Derby car, he grew confident. He had a great idea the next year to make a Pinewood Derby car that looks like the Pinewood Derby track. He worked hard on it, and it turned out well. I thought he had a clever idea for his design.

He did have a clever idea for his design. That year, other Scouts simply had more clever ideas. And the Chicago Blackhawks happened to win the Stanley Cup, so the replica ice hockey arena had the sentimental vote. He didn’t win. His design still had enough uniqueness and design to receive a third place trophy. He did well, but he assumed initially that because he won the year before, he’d win design every year. While he had an idea of what he needed for success, he learned another of his Pinewood Derby lessons that success is never guaranteed.

Take pride in a job well done

Along the years, he created another car meant to look like a fast Corvette like his other grandfather owns. He picked the image he wanted to emulate then started working (with my dad again doing most of the cutting that year for safety). He got sloppy and sort of just threw it together. When he showed me the end product, I raised my eyebrows but didn’t say much.

At the actual Pinewood Derby that year, he didn’t do well in the speed races – as he’d expected. When it came to design, he still anticipated doing well. Honestly, it wasn’t a super unique design, but had he executed it well, the judges could have rewarded his efforts. This car reflected his choice to not put as much effort into the car as he had in previous years.

When he had no trophy in either category, he was disappointed. We reviewed the cars that placed in design, and he understood why he didn’t do well. The next year, he spent extra time and attention on detail, and he again place well in design.

Know when to talk and when to stay silent

He ended up second that year only because he opened his mouth to the judges as they reviewed his car to tell them that his grandfather had helped him with it. My dad had helped cut the car – again, for safety – but my son did the work to make his Pinewood Derby the car it became. If you’ve been to any Pinewood Derby races, you can see that many parents or grandparents do the work on the cars. Judges know this happens, but unless they know, it can be hard to mark a car down.

Unfortunately, my son didn’t explain well and needlessly offered up information when the judges complimented him. He lost points, which ultimately cost him at the regional competition. This was one of his hardest Pinewood Derby lessons, as he’s an incredibly honest child. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to hold your tongue. He still struggles with this, but his experience drives this lesson home.

Do your research

No one in my family had ever done Boy Scouts. Even now, there is plenty I don’t know about Scouting that I ask friends. When it came to the Pinewood Derby, I simply assumed kids carved cars and showed up. That first Pinewood Derby opened not just my eyes, but those of my son, as well.

If you look into it more, there are tips and secrets on how to make a car run faster. You can learn how to more effectively cut your car to resemble the shape you want. You can learn all the rules about what makes your car ineligible for speed races (something some Scouts in our pack learned the hard way) and products you can purchase to help your car legally. Some venues offer Pinewood Derby clinics to help prep your car for those who don’t have the same skills or access to tools. Honestly, there is a Pinewood Derby industry!

Had we looked into it the first year, Mister Man might have decided to focus on speed for his car going forward. He might have learned different techniques for cutting or painting his cars to improve design sooner. As he got older and learned more about available resources, he took advantage of them, and his cars showed the improvement. Research, and not pure gut instinct, is the key to success in so many avenues of life.

Time management is critical

As my son got older, his dreams stayed big, but his calendar got more full. School assigned more homework that took more time each night. He started playing basketball in the winter. Tae kwon do had classes two to three times a week. He hung out with friends. Each piece doesn’t sound like much, but together, they started to rob him of time to work on his Pinewood Derby car.

The first year this cropped up, I reminded him a couple times of the Pinewood Derby date, but he shrugged me off, confident he’d have time to complete the car. Instead, he had to rush to complete the design and painting in one day. Not surprisingly, his design that year didn’t resemble his vision. He had printed off a (real) car that he wanted to replicate, but without enough time, a simpler cut and sanding had to suffice. With just one day, he could achieve only a single paint color and not the fancy designs and emblems he’d planned.

A fancy Pinewood Derby car

He didn’t love his car that year. My son liked it, but he knew he could do better. He was frustrated hat he couldn’t make it closer to his vision, but that taught him the lesson of planning ahead. After that year, he started to plan weekends and nights to work on pieces of the car rather than trying to complete it at the end. He applies some of this theory to homework and other tasks now, too. He isn’t perfect, but he gets the need to plan ahead.

Boy Scouts Logo

What Pinewood Derby lessons has your son learned?

All these lessons together gave my son important skills. Most importantly, the Pinewood Derby is your son’s experience. This is his chance to shine or to watch his friends shine. One way or other, he needs to be the one to create the car. The independence and other skills he gains from those Pinewood Derby lessons help create a stronger person.

The Pinewood Derby isn’t about the trophy in the end. It’s about creating a person who takes pride in his work and can do the work he needs going forward, whether in school or at work one day. Either way, my son can handle packing for a weekend Boy Scout trip, including organizing the food for his patrol’s meals, on his own. This time around? I’m not even checking to make sure he didn’t forget anything.

7 Pinewood Derby lessons my son learned that have helped him become a better person after Boy Scouts

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  1. James says:

    Totally agree with this – great article. The funny thing is my son figured out that having a fun looking car is the way to win as well. He had one with the everything is assume double decker couch from the Lego Movie, the puppy car, and the Popemobile (Catholic Pack) and has won the last three years for best looking.

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