By Tanni Haas
The answer to the first question is a resounding “Yes! Make sure that your children do their homework.” The best available evidence shows that the more conscientious children are about doing their homework, the better they do academically. They retain more factual information, understand the material better, and even get higher grades. More generally, research shows that by doing their homework on a consistent basis, children develop good study habits and skills, learn how to plan and manage their time, and become self-directed and self-disciplined. [i]
The answer to the second question is “It depends.” In the most comprehensive summary of the scientific literature to date, researchers from Duke University concluded that whether or not parents should help their children with their homework depends on: 1) the grade level of the children, 2) how knowledgeable parents are about the subject matter of the homework, and 3) how parents go about helping their children with it.[ii]
Before you sit down with your children to help them with their homework, you should consider their age. Sounds cryptic? Surprising as it may seem, researchers have consistently found that homework assistance is beneficial for children in elementary and high school, only not for middle-school-aged children. So if your children are in middle school, you are better off letting them do their homework on their own.
Why? Researchers believe that parental assistance with homework for children in elementary school helps because they are young and impressionable, and your help is about more than just completing the homework: you are also teaching them how to study in the first place. Erica Patall, the lead author of the research summary, says “Homework is an especially good opportunity for parents to help young kids develop self-regulatory skills, by modeling study strategies and helping students set goals and make plans for completing homework.”[iii] Also, since their homework is still simple and straightforward, as a parent you are unlikely to make any mistakes when you help out.
The situation is quite different when it comes to high-school-aged students. Here, researchers speculate that your involvement adds value because you are only likely to help out when you have particular expertise to share. When you know little or nothing about the subject matter of their homework, you are more likely to let your children do it on their own. As Judith Locke, a clinical psychologist at Queensland University of Technology in Australia succinctly puts it, “Parental assistance with homework should slowly reduce as a child gets older.” [iv]
Why, then, would it be detrimental for you to sit down with your middle-schoolers to help them out with their homework? Here, researchers think that the issue is their specific developmental stage. As budding teenagers caught between childhood and adulthood, middle-school-aged children have a strong need for autonomy and are likely to resist any effort on your part to interfere in their affairs. As Erika Patall says, “It’s probably because it’s a time when kids are trying to be independent …. Even if a parent is effective at helping a child develop skills, there’s a psychological barrier.” [v]
As the father of a 14-year-old son who is about to enter high school, I recognize these behaviors from my own experiences. When my son was in elementary school, he absolutely loved when we did his homework together; it was a great occasion for father-son bonding. Over time, he developed some impressive study habits and skills that have served him well in middle school, and which I hope will continue in high school. Although we still share many great moments together, it is safe to say that they rarely involve his homework. In middle school he has undergone a noticeable change; now, he wants to take care of everything himself, especially his homework. Any interference by me or my wife is generally met with indifference or outright opposition and is definitely unsolicited and unwanted.
Before deciding whether to help your children with their homework, you should also consider whether or not you are qualified to do so. Researchers have discovered that the more parents know about the subject matter, the more children learn from getting help with it. This makes intuitive sense. You may even teach your children how to use different ways to accomplish certain tasks. However, when you know little or nothing about the topic, your children are likely to get frustrated by your inability to help, and you might even make mistakes in their homework.
Researchers have found that, in general, parents are better able to help their children with reading and writing than with math homework. They attribute that to the fact that when it comes to reading and writing, most parents are simply better at it. The opposite is the case with respect to math. Here, parents often know less, are less up-to-date with the latest instructional strategies, and a parent’s old instructional strategies often conflict with those contemporary methods taught at school.
I experience this with my son. While he has always been very receptive to my suggestions when I have helped him edit his book reviews, essays, and other types of writing, I cannot count how many times our math homework sessions have ended with him saying in frustration “That’s not how the teacher explained it in class. It’s not how we are supposed to do it!”
Helping when you can and where appropriate is important, but it is even more important that you stay within the proper bounds of involvement. One of the most consistent findings is that children benefit the most when parents support them in their own efforts to do the homework rather than help them out every step of the way. Linda Cameron, a homework researcher at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Canada, says, ”Be at the elbow but don’t hold the pen.”[vi]
There is nothing wrong with working very closely with your elementary-school-aged children on their homework since this will help them develop great study habits and skills. Yet, the most effective form of involvement overall is simply to set clear expectations and guidelines, and then to reward good behavior when those expectations and guidelines are met.
One important aspect is to set clear rules for when, where, and how your children’s homework is supposed to be completed. As Erika Patall puts it, “Be as specific as possible about what the procedures are every day.”[vii] She argues that “students who have a clearly defined routine around homework — a set time, a set place and a set way to complete homework — are more likely to believe they can overcome challenges while doing homework, take more responsibility for learning, and ultimately do better in school.”[viii]
Research indicates that when parents engage in proper rule-setting, children spend more time on their homework, use that time more effectively, and most importantly, internalize those rules so that they become routine, good habits over time.
Whatever you ultimately decide to do, don’t despair if occasionally, you overstep your bounds. This can happen to even the best of people. Eva Pomerantz, a homework researcher at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and a mother of two, occasionally finds herself taking over the process of doing homework from her children even though she knows better. She admits ”I do that because I’m naturally a controlling person … Then I always have to remember that the child is the one who needs to be in the chair doing the strategizing.”[ix]
[i] Harris Cooper et al, “Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? A Synthesis of Research, 1987–2003, Review of Educational Research.
[ii] Erika Patall et al, "Parent Involvement in Homework: A Research Synthesis," Review of Educational Research.
[iii] Erika Patall, “Help Children Form Good Study Habits,” New York Times.
[v] Maggie Galehouse, “Does Homework Help Teach Kids the Wrong Lesson?” Houston Chronicle.
[vi] Erin Andersen, “How Much Should You Help with Homework?” Globe and Mail.
[vii] Erin Andersen, “How Much Should You Help with Homework?” Globe and Mail.
[viii] Erika Patall, “Help Children Form Good Study Habits,” New York Times.
[ix] Bruce Feiler, “The Homework Squabbles,” New York Times.