Leave the Homework to the Child

As the new school year begins, it's time for me, once again, to make my perennial case against parental involvement in homework.

First, it is significant to note that as recently as 40 years ago, little more than a generation, the rare parent helped with homework. That would be 1971, when scholastic achievement was significantly higher than it is today. (In addition, average expenditure per pupil, in real dollars, was lower and the teacher/pupil ratio was higher at every grade, but those are future columns.) Furthermore, I believe it is more than coincidence that when parents did not render regular assistance with homework, children emancipated more successfully and much earlier than is the case today.

Second, the notion that nightly parental involvement and micro-management (although school administrators and teachers will not call it that) of homework is a good thing arose from studies done in the 1970s which found that the parents of high-achieving kids newly arrived from Vietnam and other Asian countries actively participated in homework sessions. Somehow, it got lost that this was a main means for these folks to learn English, develop basic business math skills, and accelerate their assimilation. The practice was functional in that parochial context. The mistake was to assume that what was good for one cultural group would be good for all.

There is no evidence that actual achievement is enhanced through parental involvement in homework. After all, achievement has gone down as parental involvement has gone up. Grades improve, yes, but that is because parents make sure homework is returned to school virtually without error. And they drill their kids on upcoming test material to the saturation point. And then they are known, many of them, to complain if teachers do not give the grades they think their kids deserve. By that point, it is hard to tell whose grades they are.

In the process of all this involvement, kids fail to learn basic study skills, are deprived of the inestimable benefits of trial-and-error, and become increasingly dependent on parental help as parents, now heavily invested, become increasingly anxious about grades and take them as a sign of their own competence. That is called co-dependency. Meanwhile, teachers become increasingly dependent on parents to help them teach. I know of no other professional group that expects other people to help them with their job and not be paid for it.

The upshot of all this is that many college students are doing homework with their parents over the phone and online nearly every night, and many college professors have felt the wrath of parents who do not accept the grades they feel they and their children deserve. And employers even tell me that many of today's young people cannot seem to make independent decisions without consulting guess who.

"What do you recommend, John?" I was recently asked, to which I replied that I recommend parents take interest in their children's homework and make themselves available for limited assistance, but that their children's homework be, well, their children's homework-a not-so-radical notion.

A mother recently told me that on the first day of this school year, her eighth-grade son came home with a note from the math teacher informing parents of their homework responsibilities, which boiled down to one word: nightly. Because she has no intention of participating in this group-think, she asked my advice.

Write the teacher back, I said, along the following lines: "My child should be fully capable of doing whatever assignments you give him independently, and I expect him to do his best. If his best is not THE best, so be it. I want him to discover, on his own, his strengths and weaknesses so that he does not go to college and waste time and money discovering that without my help, he is not a good math student. Please know that you will always have my full support if my child's performance or behavior becomes a problem."

Over the years, I have recommended this same response to many parents. From what I am able to gather, their kids seem to do just fine, and in many cases, better.

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