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Homework: How much should you hover?

Published on: April 01, 2009

Eight-year-old William Dumas enjoys the homework projects he does for his classes at Seattle Country Day School. There’ve been “cultural heritage boxes,” “fact hats,” and more. William’s creations are simple and imaginative, says his mother, Gloria Ang. More important, they look as if they’ve been completed by a third-grader.

Doing homeworkThat’s because they have. “There’s a real tendency to want to help your children with their homework,” says Ang. “You want them to succeed. But then you realize you have to let them have their successes and failures — and learn to be responsible for themselves and for their homework.”

That’s a lesson some parents have yet to learn. “So many parents go over the top,” Ang says. “We saw first-graders bring cultural boxes equipped with electronic gadgets, sophisticated wiring and things that light up. Clearly, no 6-year-old could do that independently.”

It’s a challenge for families to distinguish between support and control. Should they sit on the sidelines and let their kids offer barely passable projects? Or should they break out the super tools and show them how it’s done? Things get especially thorny when another child’s mom or dad steps up with top-notch materials and Nobel Prize–level backgrounds in fields like engineering. “If all the other parents help and you choose not to, it puts your kid at a disadvantage,” says one father.

Teachers are well aware that not every student’s work is entirely her own. School science fairs abound with inventions Thomas Edison would envy. Libraries teem with hyperconscientious parents scrambling to add spark to their child’s history paper.

What teachers know
If you’re a helicopter homework hoverer, know that your child’s school is onto you. Your daughter might be thrilled with the eco-village you created, but over in the lounge, teachers are rolling their eyes. “We notice when there’s a big difference between the quality of work that’s done in class and done at home,” says Tuney Kannapell, middle school director at Northwest School in Seattle. “You’re not really fooling us.”

Teachers want to know what their students know, not what their students’ parents know, says Peter Bang-Knudsen, principal at the International School in Bellevue. After one sixth-grader handed in a particularly impressive paper at the International School, his teacher asked him to explain the essay’s very sophisticated vocabulary. The student couldn’t. “My dad helped me,” the student said.

“When students do their own work, they’re learning it,” says Bang-Knudsen. “When parents do the work, the kids learn just 10 percent of it.”

Still, it often seems as if only Superkid could complete some of these homework assignments alone. “There’s a lot of homework to get done in a very small amount of time,” says Tracy Sigmon, ParentMap production manager and the mother of Nate, a fourth-grader, and Evan, a second-grader. “I have a philosophical belief that I should be hands off, but in practice it doesn’t always work. I’m worried my kid might suffer.”

Nate, in a gifted program at West Mercer Elementary School on Mercer Island, “doesn’t always have the skills to get going,” Sigmon says. Realizing he was overwhelmed by a recent science report, Sigmon took him to the library, where she scanned books, marked pages and helped him gather information. “I felt he wasn’t going to be successful unless I gave that bit of help,” she says. “But I was hands off when it came to the rest.”

Sigmon says parental expectations are often unclear. “Where do you draw the line? At what point do I let my child fail and let the teacher handle it?”

Elaine Aoki, lower school director at The Bush School, feels students get all the info they need to complete their own assignments. Teachers need to see the way students handle these projects away from the classroom, she says. “If a parent is doing this, who are we assessing?”

Teachers also like to keep the homework playing field level, Aoki notes. “Some parents have more time to devote to their kids’ homework. Which parent had time to run to get the nice, clean corrugated box — and which parent said, ‘Let’s make use of what we have at home’?”

How parents can help
So just how much help should parents offer?

It depends, say educators. Young children need more guidance, and grade school teachers often assume parents will step in with help and ideas. “Sometimes we are hoping that will happen,” says Kannapell of the Northwest School in Seattle. “It’s a fun educational interaction between a child and a parent.”

As kids get older, parents should step back but stay supportive. Want to help your child with a writing assignment? “Read his essay and ask, ‘How did that character get to that scene?’” suggests Kannapell. “Or say, ‘Let me read this sentence out loud. Does it sound a little confusing?’”

Gloria Ang’s husband, Bob Dumas, is a University of Washington professor who holds a doctorate in mathematics. A hands-on parent, he switched to a hands-off homework policy after a psychologist told him to back off — and move their daughter, Siena, from public school to a private one, so “I wouldn’t feel I had to be as actively engaged in her work.”

He listened. He stays uninvolved with the kids’ schoolwork, but gives them math tutorials during the summers. He also sets a tone at home: Homework is nonnegotiable.

What other ways can parents help with homework? Be sure to provide a time and place for your children to work, says Aoki. And don’t hover. “See if they need clarification, but don’t correct their assignments.”

Find out how your child likes to study. Some kids like a parent nearby, some like to listen to background music, says Kannapell. “Set up a routine for them — and be sure to give them a snack. That’s the best thing a parent can do.”

Linda Morgan is ParentMap’s associate editor. She writes frequently about education issues.

Positive ways to help your elementary-school-age kids with homework:

  • Set up a homework routine.
  • Find a quiet space for your child to work.
  • Set aside a regular study time.
  • Check your child’s assignment sheet.
  • Remind your child to bring his work back to school.
  • Check with the teacher if you think you should be more (or less) involved in your child’s home assignments.
  • Find out how much time your child should be spending on homework.
  • Let the teacher know if your child is spending too little or too much time on his work.


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