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Parent Help With Homework Is a Generally Bad Thing

Amanda Johnson, a second-grade teacher in Laramie, Wyoming, has caused quite a stir both among her colleagues and constituents and—because her educational incorrectness was covered by national media—across the USA. Her claim to fifteen minutes of fame: Citing research purporting to show that homework does not improve overall achievement, Ms. Johnson has announced to the parents of her incoming students that she will not assign homework this year

I agree with Ms. Johnson, but not because research shows that homework does not improve achievement. I don’t think that’s what the research in question shows at all. A relatively recent study (which I’ve previously referenced in this column) found that parent involvement in homework is counterproductive. As I’ve said in this column and several books since the mid-90s, the study found that as parent help with homework goes up, child achievement goes down. The findings held true irrespective of demographics, socio-economic variables or ability.

A good 95 percent (my experienced estimate) of parent homework help amounts to enabling. It is unnecessary, undermines a child’s tolerance for frustration and ability to persevere, and erodes the child’s sense of responsibility. Furthermore, this “involvement” (the seductive name given it by America’s schools) quickly becomes self-fulfilling. The more a child is enabled, the more he will act like he is in need of enabling. Rapidly, this turns into co-dependence, which has become the norm in the parent-child (especially the mother-child) relationship over the last 45 or so years.

I contend that the research cited by Ms. Johnson simply reinforces what the above study found: parent help with homework is a generally bad thing (I say “generally bad” because there will always be exceptions to anything I say). Said research was done on a reasonably typical population of kids, meaning that most of the kids in question are receiving nightly enabling from their parents, mostly mom. The research, therefore, simply reinforces the results of the aforementioned study: whatever gain homework might produce in some of these kids is cancelled by parent involvement.

On that note, common sense says homework—a certain amount of it, that is—improves achievement. At some point, which differs slightly from child to child, the point of diminishing returns is reached, at which homework’s benefits are surpassed by such things as negative feelings toward school. But to say that homework per se is worthless is equivalent to saying that practicing baseball outside of regularly scheduled practices is worthless. Neither proposition makes any sense.

The underlying problem here is that for a complex of sociological and psychological reasons, today’s moms tend to hang their sense of adequacy on the hook of their children’s achievement in school. Specifically, the unspoken assumption in American mommy culture is that the mom with the highest achieving kid is, somehow, the best mom.

The solution, therefore, is for schools to assign a moderate amount of homework and stop encouraging moms to “help” with it. Forbid it, even.

Nonetheless, given the overall circumstances, Ms. Johnson in Laramie, Wyoming is doing the right thing. Her reasons are questionable, but her policy makes perfect sense.

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