The Atlantic: Don’t Help Your Kids With Their Homework
Remember Melissa Harris-Perry’s proclamation that your kids aren’t really your kids, but “these are our children?”
At first glance, a recent article by Dana Goldstein in The Atlantic smacked of all the same overtones the Harris-Perry commercial had.
Namely, it seemed to convey that parents should surrender their children to the state, and they will be better prepared to succeed in life.
Do you review your daughter’s homework every night? Robinson and Harris’s data, published in The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement With Children’s Education, show that this won’t help her score higher on standardized tests. Once kids enter middle school, parental help with homework can actually bring test scores down, an effect Robinson says could be caused by the fact that many parents may have forgotten, or never truly understood, the material their children learn in school.
Similarly, students whose parents frequently meet with teachers and principals don’t seem to improve faster than academically comparable peers whose parents are less present at school. Other essentially useless parenting interventions: observing a kid’s class; helping a teenager choose high-school courses; and, especially, disciplinary measures such as punishing kids for getting bad grades or instituting strict rules about when and how homework gets done. This kind of meddling could leave children more anxious than enthusiastic about school, Robinson speculates. “Ask them ‘Do you want to see me volunteering more? Going to school social functions? Is it helpful if I help you with homework?’ ” he told me. “We think about informing parents and schools what they need to do, but too often we leave the child out of the conversation.
Perhaps Goldstein was looking to echo Harris-Perry’s sentiments, but I did not reach that conclusion after reading her article. Depending on the lens you use to view this data, it can be looked at one of two ways.
First, one could come to the conclusion that parents need to back off and let schools do the child-rearing for them. Perhaps we ought to call this the Harris-Perry lens.
I viewed the data differently, however. It seemed merely to indicate there needs to be a balance between parental involvement, and a child’s autonomy. In this respect, the study confirms much of my own anecdotal experiences coming up in elementary, middle, and high school.
Those experiences showed the kids with hyper-involved parents were ultimately hamstrung by them. Every time a problem arose, the solution was found by running to a parent, who was always there to iron out the wrinkles. These are the same children that were never once told “no,” growing up. The same ones whose parents wanted to “give their child everything,” and did.
As we fear hyper-paternalism of the state, we also should fear hyper-paternalism at home, as each fosters the same inept product: a dependent adult.
The data Goldstein highlighted in her piece showed, at least to me, that a child’s success did not depend on how involved their parents were at school, but rather, what the environment was like when the child came home.
As part of his research, Robinson conducted informal focus groups with his undergraduate statistics students at the University of Texas, asking them about how their parents contributed to their achievements. He found that most had few or no memories of their parents pushing or prodding them or getting involved at school in formal ways. Instead, students described mothers and fathers who set high expectations and then stepped back. “These kids made it!,” Robinson told me. “You’d expect they’d have the type of parental involvement we’re promoting at the national level. But they hardly had any of that. It really blew me away.”
I disagree with Goldstein’s interpretation of the study that parents shouldn’t help their children with their homework. Just as hyper-paternalism isn’t the best way to facilitate learning, neither is laissez-faire parenting. We should not trade one extreme for the other.
Rather, the data indicated parents should be accessible, but not overbearing. They should be concerned, but not controlling. You can be very invested in your child’s education without also being President of the PTA. I think the study corroborates that viewpoint, even if only indirectly.
In short, help your kids with their homework. Just don’t do it for them.
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