parenting and homework “help”

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by Tamar Chansky, Ph.D.

School has begun and one of the big questions weighing on parents’ minds (and haunting their dreams at night) is just how much they should be pitching in at homework time.

To some parents, there is really no question. After all, they care about their child’s future. Sit side-by-side with their child after a long day at work and labor over every word problem? Build a model of the solar system? Make the midnight supermarket run for more sugar cubes for that igloo? Of course!

You know these parents, sometimes you are this parent — the one who talks in “we” language — as in, “What homework do we have tonight?” or “How did we do on our math test?” Other parents want the best too, they might confide guiltily, as one parent recently did, “I don’t know if I can go through another year of doing my daughter’s homework with her every night. Is this what we are supposed to do?”

Let’s slow down here a second and take that question of homework help out for a spin. First, note how this question is a relatively new phenomenon. At one time not so long ago, homework was not so much as even on a parent’s radar, let alone their second shift obsession. It was a transaction that occurred between a student and a teacher. Parents read the paper. Kids built dioramas by themselves.

Of course you’re going to help your child with homework — we all are — but if you really want your help to help and not hinder, you’re going to help them with what they actually can’t do themselves. And even then, you’re going to share the job with them, meet in the middle and do the proverbial “teaching them how to fish” so that they won’t go hungry next time and beyond.

Ask them if they want your help rather than assuming.

A study published last year by Keith Robinson and Angela Harris revealed that parent involvement in children’s education (across backgrounds) doesn’t help, and it may hinder.

With parents at the helm, kids aren’t learning how to learn, at best they’re learning how to get the right answer and in many cases may be led astray by parents — however well meaning — who don’t understand the work. The conclusion? Parental engagement in children’s education has no appreciable impact on their success in school.

“As it turns out, the list of what generally helps is short: expecting your child to go to college, discussing activities children engage in at school…and requesting a particular teacher for your child,” said the authors.

And one more point to consider…

Anxiety is on the rise, to the point where 1 in 5 children will develop an anxiety disorder, and college counseling centers struggle to meet the needs of students who have been in default anxious mode for all those years running themselves into the ground to get into a good college.

UCLA psychologist Jeff Wood found two factors that negatively impact a child’s sense of competency:

Parental intrusiveness/overcontrol—doing things that kids can already do for themselves, infantilizing behavior, and invasion of privacy
Parent modeling of anxiety (describing problems as overwhelming, or irresolvable) are behaviors that increase anxiety in kids.
So with this research in mind, here are three tasks that actually should be on a parent’s homework list for this year:

Keep your anxiety to yourself: You may worry about grades, the future, and the fact that your child is still struggling with their multiplication facts, but don’t project and catastrophize ahead about what this means. Instead, focus on helping your child improve with the task at hand. The best predictor of future success is current performance. Help them master the challenge in front of them, and they will continue to do this going forward. Focus on now, now and on later, later. Don’t split your child’s attention by designating a big chunk of their homework time to worrying about how they’ll do and what the repercussions will be.
Underfunction strategically: Be a good enough consultant. Don’t overstep and do for your child what he could do for him or herself, as this can undermine the opportunity to build a sense of competency and self-reliance. There’s always something your child can do for himself. Even kindergarteners can learn to pull out their backpack, put away their work, and try in between before you give a helping hand. Collaborate, ask questions, don’t take over, be there for questions, leave a little room for your child to manage small doses of frustration rather than swooping in and eliminating uncertainty before it starts.
Prioritize homework in your household and keep your expectations high for effort, not outcome.
What’s the parenting style most strongly associated with academic success across race and socioeconomic status? Parents who engage in an authoritative style, those who have high expectations for effort, realizing that this is what their kids can control, as opposed to focusing on outcome. At the same time, they exhibit warmth, support and understanding for where their child’s abilities are, and use this understanding to encourage growth. Children raised by parents with an authoritative parenting style are more likely to become independent, academically successful, self-reliant kids.

This assignment will be difficult for us as parents sometimes. We too will learn to strive, to struggle, to fail, to persevere and to try again, keeping our eye on the big picture rather than blowing up the impact of a small moment. In the end, what a great model to exemplify for our kids.

Oh, and for more nitty gritty suggestions about how kids can be more effective with homework, please see my blog post affectionately titled Homework is stupid and I hate everything.

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