Healthy Homework Habits (for Parents)

by Teri Cettina

When Travis Cohn Royce was in grade school, his most faithful homework buddy was his mom, Lisa Cohn. At the time, Travis was enrolled in a challenging public school program that often required several hours of homework each night.

Lisa sat next to Travis at the kitchen table and helped him do his schoolwork. Over time, she got more involved – volunteering in Travis’ classroom and regularly staying up past midnight to help her son finish projects. “I admit, I even did some of his homework for him on occasion,” Lisa says. “Sometimes he had so much work he couldn’t get to bed at night.” In retrospect, Lisa admits she was too involved. “I may have focused too much on seeing him perform well rather than simply enjoy school,” she says. Travis’ intense homework requirements may not be typical of most children. However, having a parent as a homework helper is becoming more common, even for kids with only modest amounts of homework. A study by the nonprofit Public Agenda group discovered that about one-fourth of American parents have occasionally done part of their children’s homework for them. Some experts believe the true figure is higher, that many parents today see it as a mark of good parenting to be their child’s study partner. Whose homework is it, anyway? Ruth Peters, a clinical psychologist and author of Overcoming Underachieving: A Simple Plan to Boost Your Kids’ Gradesand End the Homework Hassles, says that homework is supposed to be for kids, not
parents. In fact, she says, homework is a child’s first chance to develop a healthy work ethic. “It teaches them how to do something they don’t particularly want to do, on command. It’s comparable to learning to do your job independently when you’re an adult,” she says. Here’s how to help your child take more responsibility for his work – and take some pressure off yourself:

Learn the Homework ABCs

John Rosemond, a family psychologist and author of Ending the Homework Hassle, offers these guidelines:
A is for “All By Myself”: “Put the child in a private space. Homework shouldn’t be done in a family area like the kitchen or the homework itself will soon become a family
affair,” says Rosemond.

B is for “Back Off”: “Be very conservative about the amount of help you give your child. Be available to consult, but not to give answers,” advises Rosemond. Younger children may need a little more guidance when they fi rst start doing homework. However, Rosemond suggests that even young kids can study spelling words or vocabulary alone by speaking the words into a tape recorder, pausing for a few seconds, then saying the answer on tape. They can replay the tape later, practicing their own answers during the pauses.

C is for “Call it Quits at a Reasonable Hour”: Give your child a deadline. Rosemond says children shouldn’t do homework after 8 p.m. Unfinished work simply goes back to school the next day. Most of the time, your child really shouldn’t need to stay up late to finish schoolwork. Teachers generally follow National Education Association (NEA) guidelines of 10 minutes of nightly homework per year of schooling, through early middle school. That means fi rst-graders should have 10 minutes of homework, while sixth-graders should have about 60 minutes.

Know How Much to Help

Compare homework help to how much you help your child with other tasks, such as dressing and eating, suggests Cathy Vatterott, associate professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Vatterott’s research focuses on the role of homework in schools and families. “Five- and 6-year olds might need a little help from you on these tasks while middle school students are much more selfsufficient,” she says. “Approach homework the same way – helping only as much as is appropriate for your child’s age.”

Don’t Become the Teacher

It’s fi ne to proofread assignments or point out simple math mistakes, says Peters. However, if your child redoes the work and still gets it wrong, or is confused after you’ve explained it once, your job is done. “Just send the homework back with a note asking the teacher to please explain this topic to your child again,” she says. This also helps the teacher see what topics she might need to review with the class.

Marshal Your Resources

If your child truly is struggling with a subject, consider outside help. “Parents don’t always make the calmest tutors for their own children,” says Vatterott. If you can afford it, hire a tutor recommended by your school, pay an older student to be a homework buddy, or consult an independent learning center.

Motivate Reluctant Learners

Some kids seem naturally motivated to work hard in school. But if your child is less than gung ho about schoolwork, you may need to resort to a reward/take-away system. For grade-school children, Peters suggests that their chore charts include daily homework as a task. You might give your child poker chips for fi nishing his chores, including homework. “The chips can be exchanged at the end of the week for an allowance, TV time, special time with mom or dad – whatever motivates your child,” she says. If you have to remind older children more than once to do their assignments, they still have to do the work, but they also should lose a privilege such as TV time. “Don’t worry that you’re bribing your kids,” says Peters. “You’re actually jump-starting them so they know this work is expected every day.”

Stay Out of the Science Fair

Here’s where even the most hands-off parents can easily get lured in. One of your child’s classmates has a mom who is an engineer and a dad who is an architect, and they’re going to help their child, so you start feeling competitive. However, the experts say it’s important to pull back.