"You did a nice job setting the table, sweetheart, but we need knives." "We don't have any."

"Sure we do. Did you check in the drawer? The dishwasher?"

She had. Children began drifting into the kitchen, drawn by the perfume of roasting chicken. Their mother directed the movement of various side dishes to the table. It was time to eat, but where on Earth were the ...

"Argh," she sighed. There, on a countertop where they did not belong, lay all the knives in the household, end to end and side by side, atop a small felled forest of toothpicks. The woman put up her hands in a what-were-you-thinking gesture and looked at the culprit.

"What?" protested her son. "I need them to hold everything in place. Just until the glue dries."

Glue had been drying since before Christmas, when the boy had begun his project for science class: constructing a bridge from flat toothpicks (not round!) and wood glue (no other kind!) with the capacity to a) permit free passage of a Hot Wheels car and b) hold a two-by-four and as much as 50 pounds.

Every morning he'd glue a tranche of triangles or squares, and leave them to dry. He'd glue another set when he got home, a third at bedtime, and then he'd start again the next morning. It meant a substantial corner of the kitchen had been surrendered to sheaves of parchment paper, plastic clamps, tweezers, bottles of Titebond, boxes of toothpicks and nuggets of desiccated glue. It meant the occasional commandeering of household objects -- knives, for instance -- to keep precarious joints held together until the glue dried.

Slowly, from this confined but dramatic clutter, rose a magnificent superstructure. Was it necessary for family members give up their cutlery, that civil engineering genius might flourish? Apparently so.

It's funny how school projects exact penalties from the people around the purported project maker. On any given evening, for instance, adults dash out of drugstores carrying poster boards for projects ("All About Kansas!" or "Rock Formations of the Sahara") that are suddenly due tomorrow. Annual science fairs are a nightmare unto themselves.

For many parents, the great struggle is keeping from "helping." In our deepest hearts we know that if we tweak the project -- or take it over -- not only will we sap the child's initiative but we'll also have destroyed his sense of ownership and accomplishment. So we stand there, twitching with the repressed urge to "just fix" misspelled lettering or "just straighten" the wobbly lines of a map.

At the same time, if parents refrain from all nagging and meddling, there's a risk that their child's work will be demoralizingly outshone by the output of families with fewer scruples.

A friend of mine still winces as the memory of turning up on "parent night" to see her daughter's feeble Norman castle -- a castellated toilet roll glued on gray cardboard -- displayed beside a handsome, moated, multiturreted structure with actual stones glued on its side by (she just knew it!) a particularly pushy mother.

"That night," she says, "I spent a lot of time in the corridor. Hiding."

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.