Do you help your kids with their homework? Do you quiz them on vocabulary, ask them questions in Spanish and listen to them rattle off the 50 states in alphabetical order? Take it from me: These habits you are forming now will come back to haunt you.

Professional Homework Helpers never die; they just grow old and tired.

It all starts innocently enough. Your 5-year-old announces he has to "cut out pictures of things that start with B" for his kindergarten class. You don't want him using those big, sharp scissors, do you? So you say, "Let me help you."

With these four words, you launch your homework career.

But perhaps you think your role of Professional Homework Helper is limited to schoolwork. Not so! Why, I'll never forget the time my daughter needed two goldfish -- in a hurry -- for her sixth grade science project.

We jumped in the car and raced to the store 15 minutes before closing. She bought two fish, named them Billy and Joel and put them in separate fishbowls. For two weeks, she dutifully tapped the bowls. Three times with a knife -- clang! clang! clang! -- before each feeding to condition the fish to the sound of the dinner bell.

Billy jumped out of his bowl, I'm sorry to say. But the experiment was not in vain; I get hungry whenever I hear a clang-clang-clang.

And who can count the times my children stayed up past midnight writing book reports, only to hand them to me the next morning at 6:30. "Could you type this for me, Mom?" my daughter asked with pleading eyes. "I was so tired last night; it's awfully messy and I have to hand it in first thing this morning."

What's a homework helper to do?

But even professionals get weary now and then. Exhausted from drilling my daughter for her four-part Spanish quiz, I once sought help from the experts. Yes, I read an article called "Helping Your Child With Homework." The writer suggested naming a set time: "For instance, tell them 6:30 to 7:30 is your 'helping time.' "

But what do you do when a tearful 10-year-old comes to you at bedtime and just remembers she needs a "costume" for tomorrow's production of "The Prince and the Pauper"? You do what any other parent would do. You stay up until midnight making a peasant dress out of a king-size pillowcase.

Okay, I'll admit my PHH status takes a nose dive when it comes to math homework. For instance, my son's assignment was to interview me to find out how I use arithmetic in my daily life. He had the nerve to quiz me about checkbook balancing, figuring discounts and calculating gas mileage.

"Look, Mark," I told him, "I'd hate to see you fail this assignment, but you want the truth? I've never balanced my checkbook, I don't figure discounts and when my car needs gas I just drive it up to the garage and say, 'Fill it up with the red one.' "

Like all professionals, I don't mind calling in help when I need it. "Go ask your father," I told him.

When my oldest child entered high school, I tried to show an interest in his new course, computer programming. After all, didn't I have a reputation to uphold? At least I tried to look as though I knew what he was talking about. Hadn't I been practicing that look since the new math, anyway?

Yes, I've done it all ... given the class gerbil a home for the weekend; typed reports at the crack of dawn; watched goldfish expire right before my eyes.

You probably think that once your kids go off to college, your career as a homework helper is over. Wrong. Just last week I received three separate requests from my adult children.

My son the graduate student stopped by. Pausing to kiss me on both cheeks, he made me an offer I couldn't refuse. "Mom, will you do me a favor?" he said. "I need a five-page paper typed for my course, 'Organizational Behavior.' And don't forget to check on the spelling," he added, handing me his draft.

I had just slipped the first sheet of paper in my typewriter when my daughter the college freshman called. "Hi, Mom!" she said, out of breath. "I'm in a rush but could you come up with a few ideas for my sociology paper?"

"How much time do I have?" I asked her.

"It's due the day after tomorrow," she said.

I breathed a sigh of relief. At least I had 24 hours! "I'll give it some thought," I said.

I had just finished typing the first page of my son's paper when my daughter the senior at Boston University called.

"Mom," she said with an urgency in her voice, "you know my course, 'Introduction to Photography'? In order to pass, I have to take a picture of somebody famous! Can you help?"

"I'd love to," I said, "but when is the last time Sly Stallone came to our house for dinner?"

"Mom," she said, "this is serious. The more famous the person is, the better mark I get. You've got to help me ace this course!"

In a flash I ripped my son's paper out of the typewriter. I slammed my sociology notes in a bottom desk drawer. This was going to be a tough one -- but I'd rise to the challenge!

When you're a Professional Homework Helper, you do what you have to do. Carol Dykstra is a free-lance writer.

1987, North America Syndicate Inc.