The XX Factor

When Mom’s Not the Homework Helper

This morning I finally got around to going through my e-mail from last week more thoroughly, and tucked deep in my in-box was a missive from my 9-year-old’s science teacher. He had a test today. She kindly included all of the review material, and probably the exact diagram he would be tested on. I imagine he had them in his backpack at some point, too, along with some form of written indication that a test was imminent.

You’ve probably guessed that I did not help my son study for his science test over the weekend, although he did, over coffee Saturday, demonstrate a couple of forms of “waves” for me with the Slinky he’d just bought with his allowance. This may make me precisely the kind of parent Katie Roiphe called for in her article on our misguided attempts at engineering perfect children this past weekend, but it isn’t an actual parenting philosophy. I didn’t set out to teach Sam that if you forget to study for your science test, you are unlikely to do well. (I predict a C or a D.) It’s just what happens to Sam because he is one of four kids, because he has a lot of homework of various kinds, and because Sam’s dad and I just aren’t attuned to giving him the help he so clearly needs but never remembers to ask for. If we had homework and tests in fourth grade, neither of us remembers a parent sitting down nightly to make sure we were getting things done. It’s not that we consciously declared that we wouldn’t. It’s just that we never do.

But that nightly sit-down is clearly what’s actually expected of us, or at least of someone. In a different social circle, we could hire a “homework helper,” who, as the New York Times described recently, could sit with Sam, get him organized and through the work and even push him through piano practice and a little extra tutoring in any subject that wasn’t going so well. Where we live, such a thing would, ironically enough, tag us as both overvigilant and underinvolved: What could be so important in fourth grade? No kid should need that kind of hovering! Except, of course, that most kids around here already get that kind of hovering. They have “homework helpers”: mom and dad. Every parent in my son’s class can tell you exactly which of the recent weekly “math journal” problems were difficult and how (with help) their child solved them. I know, I asked.

Blog posts like this one usually end with a bold parenting declaration: I’m right! Doing homework and studying should be his responsibility! I’m teaching life lessons! But I’m not sure that I am right. For weeks, I left him to do his “literature question” (a paragraph on something he’s read) on his own, believing it should be his own work. He got Cs consistently. Finally, I sat down with him and talked it through. He moved on to a B. Then I went further: I pointed out the sentences that were awkward, the places he should expand, the gaps in his response. As. But who, exactly, improved?

If I stay as hands-off as I would prefer to, Sam will end the year as, at best, a C student. He’ll see himself as less able than the other kids in his class. He won’t be allowed to do more advanced work that he might, if he were better organized or prepared, be capable of. That’s arguably fair. He doesn’t study. His answers to those literature questions are what they are. But if Sam is being graded as a solo 9-year-old, and the rest of his class consists of 9 (and mostly 10, but that’s another issue)-year-olds-plus-help, that doesn’t seem right at all.

Hyper-parenting is easy to mock, but as my kids get older, I see again and again that it’s less an individual choice than a prisoner’s dilemma. The external circumstances we’re dealing with are unlikely to change, but if he’s going to do better in school, something has to. The real question is, should that something be me?

Updated in response to Katie Roiphe’s article on Slate , 11/22/10.

Photograph from Wikimedia Commons.