This weekend, our family enjoyed our last gasp of blissfully homework-free autumn air.
This afternoon, we parents of kindergartners at the local school have been told to expect that our child’s backpack will come home containing a purple folder. Tucked inside will be first of what will eventually consume both my daughters’ evenings.
The teacher has said this is our child’s homework. Never mind that our 5-year-old has yet to learn to tie a shoe by herself, let only hunch over an assignment and trouble over questions.
And so will begin what I glean is a new stage of parenting, filled with the nightly questions: How much to nag? How much to help? How much to “let her fail”?
I turned for guidance to Rick Ackerly, author of the newly published, “The Genius in Every Child: Encouraging Character, Creativity in Children.”
He began sounding like the former headmaster he was: “The question, ‘How can a parent guide a child in their schoolwork?’ sounds like it comes from a parent who is already taking too much responsibility,” he wrote to me.
“If parents want kids to take responsibility for their homework, it will work better if they act as if their children naturally want to be self-directed in their homework.”
Ackerly went on to talk about why parents like me have become confused about our homework responsibilities and also gave me a few ideas for how I can might keep the helicopter blades turned off in the months and years to come.
“It is understandable that a parent might take too much responsibility for homework. These days, parents are getting it from both sides. They are being told that the problem with schools is that parents are not involved enough and that the reason for low student achievement is that their children are not getting enough attention and help at home. Most parents now think it is virtuous to be ‘involved’ with their child’s schoolwork ...
“The child is responsible to the teacher for the homework. Generally, the parental role is to be doing their own work nearby in the event that children want to ask for help, and not to interfere with the consequences of not doing their homework. There will be cases where the teacher judges that a particular child needs direct parent involvement at home for reasons which are unique to that child in which case the teacher will need to make sure that parent and teacher are working in harmonious tandem rather than at cross purposes. (Cross purposes is more often the case, in my experience.)”
JD: If given the choice, do you think teachers in upper grades would rather see more or less parental fingerprints on their students’ assignments?
RA: In general, educators are not happy to see parental fingerprints on a student’s work unless they specifically ask for it. How will they know what the student is capable of? With parental fingerprints, the data that feed the parent-teacher conferences and report cards is completely distorted and obfuscated and no one can get a good read on the child’s needs and what the child can do on their own.
Collaborating is good when it is teamwork, and the child is a key decision-maker on the team.
JD: In an ideal world, should a parent oversee the work only, or help out when they have a particular expertise, or play no role whatsoever?
RA: It’s good for parents to be busy with their own work and interests as long as they care about the children and their interests and make sure they spend time together doing things they both love. Therefore, parents should not “oversee” the work. That communicates: “I don’t trust you to make good decisions without me.”
They should only help out when asked, or when it is part of a plan that fits with what the teacher is doing.
If they are unanxious and trust their children to be up to the task of struggling through stuff on their own, then they can just trust their own judgment and get involved when it seems like help will actually help, be fun and build the relationship. This might include being empathetic without rescuing when they suffer the consequences of not doing their homework.
Ackerly also suggested these tips:
1. Have family “study hall.” If children see their parents involved in reading and learning for some time in the evening, it lessens the sense that they are stuck off in the corner with “work” to do while mom and dad are having “fun” watching TV.
2. Here’s a way one parent I know helped with homework without taking it over: She asked questions-particularly when the child could not figure something out. (It helped that she didn’t actually know anything about AP Physics.)
“How come you could figure out that problem, but you can’t figure out this one?” (In explaining the difference, the child figured her mistake out.)
3. Another good move when they are younger is to have them “teach” the homework to the parent when they are finished. This way the parents aren’t “checking” it. The parent becomes the student; little kids love that. The work always improves when the child gets to play teacher. The parents get to ask “dumb” questions about what they hear.
4. Define a quiet, well-lit place to be the work room-or if it is the kitchen table (which is great), it can be understood that this is where people read, write, solve problems, create stuff, make art, do research, and work together on interesting issues. This makes the whole thing communal.
How do you handle homework?