Year after year, at parent-teacher nights, I’ve watched my four kids’ teachers write on the board what we parents need to know about homework: how to access the assignments online, policies on making up missed work, deadlines for big projects—all so we can stay on top of things. You’ve been there, right?
Notice I said I watched. I never write anything down. I figure I have enough to do with work, endless pickups and drop-offs, signing permission slips, and all the rest.
Homework? That’s my kids’ job.
Still. As dutiful pens scratch and fingers fly over smartphones all around me, I can’t help feeling twinges of guilt. Am I shortchanging my kids? Would they have a better chance of getting into Stanford or Yale or having a six-figure career if I’d just keep a closer eye on their assignments?
No and no, says new research. (Whew!) As our kids get older, we actually help them MORE by helping them less with their homework.
F for hovering
Being hands-off about homework might sound like it runs counter to the mountain of research suggesting that kids do better when parents are involved in school. But this new study, out of Australia’s Queensland University of Technology, is among the first to show that at least when it comes to parents’ involvement in homework, too much of a good thing turns out to be a bad thing—especially by the time kids reach middle school.
The nut of the problem: The more we parents feel responsible for homework, the less our kids own it themselves.
How much is too much help? Clinical psychologist Judith Locke, the lead author of the study, which looked at nearly 900 families, found that many parents “continue to assist children at an age when the child should be taking most of the responsibility for their academic work.”
What this looks like, she says:
- Telling kids the answers
- Taking over when our kids are super-frustrated or quit
- Correcting assignments
- Asking teachers about assignments
- Complaining about consequences for incomplete homework
Kids helped this way are less likely to fully develop their own sense of academic responsibility, Locke says. They don’t get to practice skills like self-motivation (to get going on assignments), perseverance (to see them through), and time management. It’s hard to feel a lot of pride when it’s your dad doing your algebra or a lot of confidence when your mom is double-checking your answers every night.
Hovering over homework is also a recipe for an unexpected not-so-great trait: a sense of entitlement. Kids don’t connect working hard to earning good grades. They’re quicker to expect instructors or the school to make sure they get good grades—and quicker to blame them when it doesn’t happen.
Highly-involved parents in the study also tended to believe that homework is partly the teacher’s responsibility—to the point where they felt teachers were “falling short” in higher grades. That’s given rise to parents emailing teachers directly for assignments and obsessively checking online grading tools for immediate feedback, rather than waiting for progress reports or end-of-term grades.
A+ for hands-off homework
For some on this path, Locke says, it can be hard to let go. Colleges are even seeing parents who pick their kids’ courses, edit their papers, and nag lecturers about grades, she adds.
What works better, she and others suggest:
- Make sure your child has enough time and a dedicated study space. That sends a clear signal that you think homework is important.
- Encourage self-advocacy. If your child is struggling, encourage him or her to ask the teacher for help. Then if the problem persists, check in yourself and together, come up with a plan—extra review or practice, a tutor, more time for homework.
- Look at it from your child’s perspective. Some research has shown that 9- and 10-year-olds whose parents help a lot with homework feel they’re being seen as “incompetent.”
- Get comfortable with a little discomfort. It’s hard to see our kids grouse or cry. It can be even harder to see C’s and D’s. Educators say struggle is part of the learning process—and still not a good reason to get micro-involved.
- Back off a little more each year as your child gets older. Though the work gets harder, you’re needed less. By middle and high school, you definitely shouldn’t be involved every day, Locke says.
Gold stars for all
Not only is there little academic free-fall when we gradually remove the safety net of overdoing homework help, Locke and other experts say, but everybody’s happier, too: Our kids grow more responsible and confident. They feel good advocating for themselves if they run into trouble. The whole house feels less friction at the very time of day when we all should be enjoying one another’s company. Teachers can spend more time teaching. And parents? We have one less item on our endless to-do lists.