Dear Mr. Dad: I pride myself on being a very hands-on mom—I drive my kids to all their events, am active in the PTO, and, yes, I often sit with my kids (who just started 4th and 6th grade) while they do their homework. Sometimes I get a little impatient and I give them an answer or two. School’s only been in session two weeks, but I can see that they’re starting to ask for help when they don’t really need it. When I refuse, they whine, and I give in. I can see that I made a mistake by given them answers in the first place. Is there a way to get them to start doing their work by themselves?
A: First of all, your kids are lucky that you’re such an involved mom—and they should be thankful that you’re so supportive of their education. But, let’s be honest: You’re doing their homework for them, which has zero upside (except, possibly to earn them higher grades, which they won’t deserve anyway, so I’m not sure that counts as “upside”). And the downside is that you’re undermining their ability to learn good study habits and to master the material they’re supposed to be learning. Plus, you’re sending a very clear message that you don’t think they’re smart enough to do their own work. From what you say, they’re starting to believe you, and that’s tragic.
As to your question, instead of asking how to get the kids to start doing their work by themselves, you should ask how (and when) you’re going to stop “helping” them (“helping” in quotes because giving them answers isn’t actually helping).
The answer is simple: You need to stop cold turkey and you need to do it now. If it makes you feel any better, you’re far from alone. Various studies I’ve looked at have found that somewhere between a quarter and half of parents do their kids’ homework for them. I saw this firsthand a few years ago when some friends invited me over late one evening to help their 7thgrader on his science-fair project, which was due the next morning. Sounded like fun, but when I got there, their daughter had already gone to bed, leaving three adults to finish the project. And I saw used to see it a lot when grading papers in my daughters’ elementary school classrooms. At least a quarter of them had clearly been written by adults. When I pointed it out to the teachers, they always usually shrugged their shoulders and said that the parents denied having done the work.
Instead of answers, what your children need when they have trouble grasping something is understanding and support. Ask them questions. What’s the actual assignment? What, exactly, don’t they understand? For some kids, the problem is a kind of overload. They can do one problem at a time, but the prospect of having to do 20 is paralyzing. In cases like that, divide the assignment into smaller, more manageable chunks. Take a short break after each chunk and then get back to it.
If one of the kids truly doesn’t understand something or simply isn’t able to keep up with the work, talk to the teacher. He or she may be able to give the child some extra attention and/or some remedial work to get up to speed.
Now that you’re no longer in the business of doing homework for your kids, you’re going to have to get tough. That means cancelling playdates and weekend fun until the kids start doing what they’re supposed to do.
But your biggest challenge is going to be to let your children fail. Sounds harsh, but if you’re confident that they can do the work, a bad grade can be a real wake-up call. It won’t be easy—you’ll be screamed at and accused of being a horrible parent. (“if you really loved me you would haves helped…”). But don’t ever give in. Minor failures will help your children rebuild their confidence in themselves. And that’s the best thing you can possibly do for them.
Previously published on Mr. Dad