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Whose Homework?

June 01, 2014

For too many families, homework time has become the organizing element in the hours between 5 and 10 p.m., dictating when dinner is served, how parents spend their evening, what family activities can or cannot occur. Many parents are slaves to a steady stream of “Can you help me?” or “I don’t understand this” or “What am I supposed to do on this worksheet?”

A 2013 report of the National Center for Family Literacy found that 50 percent of surveyed parents struggle when it comes to helping their children with homework, often because they themselves don’t understand the material, or their child isn’t welcoming the assistance, or they simply can’t make the time amid everything else that demands their attention.1 For many parents, homework time is stressful all around.

But why should parents be stressed? Whose homework is it anyway — theirs or the children’s?

Reviewing three decades of research about American parents and their kids’ academic lives, one research team came to the conclusion that parental involvement in kids’ homework yields few benefits for children, and might even backfire.2 “Consistent homework help almost never improved test scores or grades,” the researchers found. “Most parents appear to be ineffective at helping their children with homework. Even more surprising was that when parents regularly helped with homework, kids usually performed worse.”3 Once upon a time, teachers — not parents — reviewed children’s homework, meting out necessary consequences for shabby or incomplete effort. It worked well then and it can work well now, provided we step aside, stop “enabling,” and remind ourselves that some of life’s most important lessons are only learned through mistakes or failure.

What could parents be doing if they weren’t overly involved at homework time? How about Mom and Dad sharing a glass of wine and catching up on the events of their day — in other words, nurturing the marital relationship, upon which children’s sense of security absolutely depends. Or how about parents using that time to unwind after a long day — reading the paper, surfing the Web, taking a speed walk — recharging their batteries to be better available to the kids (or spouse) after the homework is done.

There’s not a lot of time for parents and children to be together during the school week; why squander it being the homework police?

References & Citations
  2. Robinson, Keith and Angel L. Harris. The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement with Children’s Education. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) 2014
  3. Robinson, Keith and Angel L. Harris. “Parental Involvement Is Overrated.” New York Times, April 12, 2014.