December 02, 2016
We live in an era where the polarizing pendulum of parenting advice swings back and forth with regularity, from one arbitrary extreme to the other. The reality is that evidence-based practice typically falls in the less dramatic middle … and remains hidden there.
Such is the case with helping your child with homework. If we track current parenting practices, we are left with two caricatures: either the helicopter parent who not only manages the child’s homework but jumps in when necessary to actually do the work to ensure an A+, or the carefree hands-off parent who thinks that the child is fully responsible and as such has absolutely no idea what’s happening.
Do these caricatures exist? Yes, of course they do. But the point is these aren’t the options a parent should choose from — the real role of the parent is somewhere in the middle, which happens to be the territory of the meaningfully involved parent.
Let’s be clear. Parents should be involved in their child’s homework. But here, “involvement” means being informed. Do you know how much homework your child has and how much is coming up later in the week? Why should you know this — after all, shouldn’t managing homework be the responsibility of the child? Yes and no. Students in elementary or middle or high school are not fully in control of the time and space available to them to get their work done. They can’t dictate how long it takes to get home from school. They can’t necessarily create the space required in the house (including requirements for lighting and lack of noise) that is conducive to doing their work entirely on their own.
They are, after all, kids who need to have parents who monitor and control things like access to technology, which gets complicated as more and more homework is conducted on a device. Kids get encouraged to load up on extracurricular activities, which can be terrific experiences but also time eaters, and they will need parents to help them sort out all of these external demands. Parents should help them figure out how to get in their homework and everything else along with providing adequate time for sleep (which most kids don’t get). Most of all, kids need parents who are interested in their academic lives, who want to hear about what they are doing in school — not to gauge their progress or success, but to simply indicate that they value education and are connected to their kids’ lives.
Parents can also be advocates for their kids. You may see that your child is stressing out and can help them figure out why that is (Is their schedule too jam packed? Is there too much homework? Does the class offer a particular challenge?). You can become aware of what experts recommend as optimal levels of homework, typically computed by the “10 minute per grade level per night” algorithm — meaning, for example, that second graders should have a total of 20 minutes a night of homework (more than that, and the benefit goes away) — and give feedback to the school if the homework load is excessive.
There is nothing here about putting pressure on your child, correcting their mistakes, and fixing up papers to make sure they get the top grade in the class. There is also nothing here about having absolutely no clue what’s going on with your kid’s homework load this year, on a nightly basis.
That middle ground is the solid ground of parenting, where most of our suggestions from research are drawn. It’s where our common sense and our empirical evidence converge nicely to support the idea that helping your child with homework matters, and there are ways to be involved that serve your child, and you, best.