Q: I homeschooled my oldest, an 8-year-old boy, until this year. He started third grade in public school in August. As a homeschooling mom, I was not a micromanager and don't want to become one now, but the school virtually insists that parents help with homework. I want him to be independent. What are your thoughts on this?
A: I have gone on regular rants about this for 30 years now, so thank you for the opportunity to go on yet another.
Schools began encouraging parent involvement in homework in part, according to some accounts, because of a misinterpretation of data concerning Vietnamese children who came to the USA in the 1970s as part of the "boat people" migration. Even though there was no indication that parent involvement outside of very discrete populations was working, schools kept pushing it -- a testament to the rigidity of bureaucracies.
When parents get involved with homework, they almost invariably begin to (a) enable and (b) personalize their children's grades. As a consequence, they are likely to complain about their children's grades. Ergo, we now have what is termed "grade inflation," one consequence of which is that children no longer know what their academic weaknesses are. Meanwhile, because of the enabling, their weaknesses become more pronounced and their strengths are at risk of never being fully developed.
I may not be able to rant about this much longer, however, because a relatively new study may finally get through to America's education planners. In the largest-ever study of its kind, researchers at the University of Texas and Duke University analyzed three decades' worth of data regarding parent participation in children's academics. What they discovered confirmed what I've been saying since the mid-1980s: Parents who help with homework may actually be hurting their children's chances for success. Regardless of race, income, or education level, parents helping with homework did not translate to higher scores on standardized achievement tests, for example, and was found to depress overall achievement in the long run.
Right! Parent homework help usually takes the form of the parent taking responsibility for the child's achievement level. It's a very simple equation, really: The more responsible the parent, the less responsible the child. Furthermore, many kids whose parents help with homework develop what psychologists term "learned helplessness syndrome." The more their parents help, the more incompetent the child begins to feel and the more helpless (and in need of help) the child begins to act.
Struggle is not a bad thing, in other words. In fact, it can be very growth-producing. In and of itself, the fact that a child is struggling does not justify parents jumping in to "help." For readers who are interested, the entire study can be found in "The Broken Compass: Parent Involvement with Children's Education," by Keith Robinson and Angel Harris (Harvard University Press, 2014)
John Rosemond, a family psychologist, answers parents' questions at rosemond.com.