When Travis Cohn Royce (now a teenager), was in grade school, his most faithful homework buddy was his mom, Lisa Cohn. At the time, Travis was enrolled in a challenging public school program that often required several hours of extra work. Lisa sat next to him at the kitchen table each night and helped him with his schoolwork. Over time, she got more involved - volunteering time in Travis’ classroom and regularly staying up past midnight to help her son finish projects. “I admit, I even did some of his homework for him on occasion,” says Lisa. “Sometimes he had so much work he couldn’t get to bed at night.”
In retrospect, Lisa admits she was probably too involved. “I may have focused too much on seeing him perform well rather than simply enjoy school,” she says.
To be sure, Travis’ intense homework requirements aren’t typical of most children. However, having a parent as a homework helper is becoming more common - even for kids with only modest amounts of homework. A study by the non-profit Public Agenda group discovered that about one-fourth (22 per cent) of parents have occasionally done part of their children’s homework for them. Some experts believe the true figure is probably even higher - that many parents today see it as a mark of good parenting to be their child’s study partner.
Just whose homework is it, anyway?
Ruth Peters, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Overcoming Underachieving: A Simple Plan to Boost Your Kids’ Grades and End the Homework Hassles, confirms that homework is still supposed to be for kids, not parents. In fact, she says, homework is a child’s first chance to develop a healthy work ethic. “It teaches them how to do something they don’t particularly want to do, on command. It’s comparable to learning to do your job independently when you’re an adult,” she says.
Here’s how to help your child take more responsibility for their homework - and take some pressure off yourself:
Learn the homework ABCs
John Rosemond, a family psychologist and author of Ending the Homework Hassle, offers these simple guidelines:
A is for “All by myself”: “Put the child in a private space. Homework shouldn’t be done in a family area, like the kitchen, or the homework itself will soon become a family affair,” says Rosemond.
B is for “Back off”: “Be very conservative about the amount of help you give your child. Be available to consult, but not to give answers,” advises Rosemond. Younger children may need a little more guidance when they first start doing homework. However, Rosemond suggests that even young kids can study spelling words or vocabulary alone by speaking the words into an electronic device, pausing for a few seconds, then saying the answer on the device. They can replay it back later, practicing their own answers during the pauses.
C is for “Call it quits at a reasonable hour”: Give your child a deadline. Rosemond says children shouldn’t do homework after about 8pm. Unfinished work simply goes back to school the next day. Most of the time, your child really shouldn’t need to stay up late to finish schoolwork.
Know how much to help
Compare homework help to how much you help your child with other tasks, such as dressing and eating, suggests Cathy Vatterott, Ph.D., an associate professor of education. Vatterott’s research focuses on the role of homework in schools and families. “Five and six year olds might need a little help from you on these tasks while middle-school students are much more self-sufficient,” she says. “Approach homework the same way - helping only as much as is appropriate for your child’s age.”
Don’t become the teacher
It’s fine to proofread assignments or point out simple math mistakes, says Peters. However, if your child redoes the work and still gets it wrong, or is confused after you’ve explained it once, your job is done. “Just send the homework back with a note asking the teacher to please explain this topic to your child again,” she says. This practice also helps the teacher see what topics your child might need to review with the class.
Marshal your resources
If your child truly is struggling with a subject, consider outside help. “Parents don’t always make the calmest tutors for their own children,” says Vatterott. If you can afford it, hire a tutor, pay an older student to be a homework buddy or consult an independent learning centre.
Motivate reluctant learners
Some kids seem naturally motivated to work hard in school. But if your child is less than gung-ho about schoolwork, you may need to resort to a reward/take-away system. For grade-school children, Peters suggests that their chore charts include daily homework as a task. You might give your child poker chips for finishing their chores, including homework. “The chips can be exchanged at the end of the week for an allowance, TV time, special time with mom or dad - whatever motivates your child,” she says.
If you have to remind older children more than once to do their assignments, they still have to do the work, but they also should lose a privilege such as TV time. “Don’t worry that you’re bribing your kids,” says Peters. “You’re actually jump-starting them so they know this work is expected every day.”
Stay out of the science fair
Here’s where even the most hands-off parents can easily get lured in. One of your child’s classmates has a mom who is an engineer and a dad who is an architect, and they’re going to help their child… so you start feeling competitive. However, the experts say it’s important to pull back.
“It’s better for your child to do a satisfactory project that they completed mostly on their own than for you, the grown-up, to help them create a fabulous project that wins the science fair. That’s just cheating,” says Peters. “Even if your child doesn’t fully understand, you can say, ‘I understand how disappointed you feel. I feel the same way, too, but we didn’t cheat. This was your own work and that’s worth a lot.’”
Let them make mistakes
If you swoop in to help at the last minute, after your child shirks responsibility for an assignment, you set the stage for bad future habits. Vatterott says you wouldn’t believe how many parents of college students call professors about their children’s assignments or grades - something that was almost unheard of a decade ago.
It can be tough to not interfere, but the experts agree that kids sometimes need to pay the price for their choices. Rosemond once refused to take his daughter to the store for supplies when she waited until the last minute to complete a project. “She never made that mistake again,” he recalls. After battling with her son about his homework, Vatterott, too, put the ball back in her child’s court. “It took a couple of really bad report cards for him to decide on his own that it wasn’t really fun to disappoint his teacher and himself.”
Teri is a freelance writer and mom of two daughters.
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