Is Parental Involvement in Homework a Bad Thing?

By Samantha Stainburn — March 27, 2014 2 min read
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Parents, back away from that textbook. Helping your children with their homework—monitoring whether they do it, reviewing their answers, and sharing what you remember from 25 years ago about solving quadratic equations—may be doing more harm than good.

That’s the contention of new research discussed in “Don’t Help Your Kids With Their Homework,” an article in the April 2014 issue of The Atlantic. The article reviews the findings of a new book, The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement With Children’s Education, published by Harvard University Press.

The book’s authors, Keith Robinson, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Angel L. Harris, a sociology professor at Duke, examined more than 60 different measures of parental participation in children’s schooling to find out if their involvement boosted students’ academic achievement.

Surprise: They discovered that parental help with homework doesn’t help children score higher on standardized tests. In fact, when parents attempt to puzzle through assignments at the middle-school level or higher, they saw scores go down. In an interview with Macleans, Robinson offered a possible explanation. “As kids get older,” he said, “parents’ abilities to help with homework are declining. Even though they may be active in helping, they may either not remember the material their kids are studying now, or in some cases never learned it themselves, but they’re still offering advice. And that means poor quality homework.”

Kenneth Goldberg, the author of the 2012 book, The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers, sees another negative consequence of parental involvement with homework: more behavioral problems in school.

Because schools penalize students for not doing homework, he writes in the April 2014 issue of District Administration, parents often take it upon themselves to monitor whether their child completes their assignments.

“If the child has trouble in class, we observe the child at work before presuming what type of problem he or she has,” Goldberg writes. “But at home, parents assume the child only needs to try harder. This is not only a false perspective, but also a self-fulfilling prophecy that causes children to become unnecessarily distressed.”

“These children come to school not refreshed and refueled for the day. They may be angry over penalties given them at home, and they may expect to feel embarrassed when homework gets checked. They act as if they don’t care, and often act out in other ways as well. Many behavioral problems displayed at school are actually rooted in penalties for work not done at home.”

Goldberg proposes a structural solution to this problem that principals can implement. He recommends, among other things, giving students time-bound assignments that are designed to be completed within reasonable, fixed periods of time—and having parents agree to support this approach—as well as reducing penalties for skipping or failing to complete homework. “Wherever this has happened, homework-noncompliant children actually get more work done,” he writes.

For more on homework—and in particular how much time students actually spend on it—check out this Time and Learning blog post from last week.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.