Q. In last week’s column, you said that “there’s nothing that so robs a child of the lasting benefits of homework than parents who are benevolently involved.” That struck me as odd, especially since the school my children attend expects parents to be actively involved in homework. They send home regular suggestions concerning how we should discuss the kids’ homework with them, help with assignments, and so on. Are you saying all this is bad?
A. I’m saying that for the most part, the ways in which your children’s school - and, for that matter, most schools these days - encourages parental participation in homework is counterproductive. About the only thing such involvement accomplishes is better grades. At this point, the average parents would ask, “So what’s wrong with better grades?” and I would answer, “Nothing, except that when parents are the reason for those better grades, then in the final analysis, the child in question is losing far more than he or she is gaining.”
The most valuable learning takes place by trial-and-error. To the degree someone learning a task is prevented from making an error, that same someone is prevented from learning. When parents become involved in homework, it is almost inevitable that they will begin to take their children’s grades personally. The more personally they take them, the more they will act to prevent their children from making errors.
Inadvertently, then, they short-circuit the learning process.
A child who is expected to do his or her own homework, in his or her own homework place (as opposed to a family area like the dinner table), may not always make A’s and certainly will not always take to school homework assignments that are error-free. That child will, however, learn more effectively from his or her mistakes than would otherwise be the case. Furthermore, that child will steadily acquire what I term “Homework’s Seven Hidden Values”: responsibility, autonomy, perseverance, time management, initiative, self-reliance and resourcefulness.
Those seven character traits are the truly enduring “stuff” of homework. Speaking for myself - and my parents (and teachers!) expected me to do my homework independently - I have forgotten almost all of the algebra, physics, chemistry, geometry and world history I was taught in high school and college. Obviously, I can do without them at this point in my life. What I have not forgotten, and what I cannot do without, are the character values that were strengthened in the process of doing my homework independently. Those values are necessary to a successful life, and we do children no favors by sacrificing them on the altar of good grades.
Besides, it is my consistent finding that even children who have been diagnosed with learning problems actually make better grades when they are properly guided toward doing their homework (including studying for tests) on their own.
Should parents ever get involved? Yes, it’s reasonable for parents to occasionally (the operative word) answer questions, clarify directions and even check papers, but limits must be set on those aspects of parental help, lest the help become harmful. The manner in which parents manage homework will set enduring precedents that will affect greatly how the child in question responds to future challenges, most important of which is the challenge of successfully negotiating one’s adult life.