Care and Feeding

Am I Supposed to Be More Involved in My Child’s Education?

A mother helps her son with his schoolwork.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

I have been wondering this since the early days of Zoom kindergarten (when our oldest started school). How much involvement do teachers want from parents at home? We’re not delinquent parents, but we are pretty hands-off when it comes to school. We engage our kid in activities, he excels in math, we read to all the kids daily (and have since infancy), but we don’t make sure he’s doing assignments or sit down by his side to walk him through a homework sheet. (Obviously if has a question we help him!)

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I just remember my parents being very hands-off throughout my entire education, like they looked at my report card and that was the extent of it (granted I usually brought home A’s and didn’t give them trouble) but they never asked me what my homework was and sat me down to do it. I guess my question is, how hands-off is too hands-off?

Obviously no one likes a helicopter parent, but there’s probably a big gray area and I don’t know where I should fall in there. I don’t want to neglect their schooling but also isn’t the point of school to learn to do things yourself? When I see how friends help their kids with schoolwork and organization it makes me feel like I’m neglecting my kids. One time this year the teacher sent a message saying our son wasn’t completing phonics worksheets in school and she was sending them home with him, and we made sure he completed them, but that’s been about it. Thanks!!

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—Too Hands-Off?

Hi THO,

I don’t think there is any right or wrong answer here. I believe if your involvement is working for your child and your family then I wouldn’t change a thing. To say parental involvement is a grey area is an understatement. As a second-grade teacher, I’ve had parents request to basically serve as a teaching assistant, and parents with whom I interact 2-3 times a year. Every family’s philosophy here is different and most teachers are usually happy to meet you where you are.

If your child is happy, performing well academically, and has no behavioral issues, I see no point in fixing what isn’t broken. That is, unless the teacher requests some additional help with special projects like classroom parties or events. The truth is that managing parental expectations can become almost as difficult as managing student needs. Personally, I have always appreciated parents who are supportive but distant. Meaning, they’re available to help when needed, but also give their children the space needed to develop a strong sense of academic independence.

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—Mr. Hersey (elementary school teacher, Washington)

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Our son is 15 and a high school freshman. He is very quiet (always has been), a good but reluctant student, and a nice kid with a good sense of humor. He also sees a therapist and is on medication for anxiety. Sometimes I think one of his goals is to get through each day with no attention being drawn to him.

He had a tough time schooling from home for the end of seventh grade and about half of eighth grade. He went back into school in March 2021 as soon as in-person was an option. I think he missed some key elements of middle school—learning to juggle different classes and teachers, for example. His transition to high school has been a bit bumpy but for the most part he is handling things well. However, he is very reluctant to speak up for himself. Every week or so, I sit down with him to look at the electronic gradebook which shows all of the tests, quizzes, assignments, etc. that have been graded for each of his classes. We started doing this with him in middle school because he had difficulty handing things in electronically and had many assignments marked as missing that he thought he had completed and handed in.

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This year missing assignments have been less of an issue but haven’t completely disappeared. Last night, we discovered a missing biology assignment that he said he handed in. (Unlike most of his work, this was an assignment that was actually done on paper so there was no way for us to resubmit it electronically). He didn’t want to talk to his teacher about it—he hates having to assert himself in this way. So we suggested that he write the teacher an email, which he also was reluctant to do. He can’t articulate why he dreads this. Eventually, we helped him come up with the language for the email and he sent it.

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My question: How do we help him feel more comfortable speaking up for himself? We are trying to let him handle more on his own but I’m wondering if there are any ways we can help him build up his confidence. When I went to parent-teacher conferences in the fall, most of his teachers seemed to have a good grasp of who he is and appreciated his quiet manner and attentiveness in class. Do most high school teachers try to track down missing assignments? Our son seems completely shocked whenever we find one listed.

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—Soft Spoken

Dear Soft Spoken,

I think the only way for your son to become more comfortable asserting himself is to have more experience doing so. I’m glad that you had him send the email himself, with your support. I think that is a step in the right direction. You might also try role-playing with him, where he practices what he will say to his teacher. I suspect that his fear of speaking to his teacher is related to his anxiety, so it would be good for him to discuss this with his therapist as well.

I will also say that some of this trepidation may improve as he matures. Many students who lack the confidence to advocate for themselves in ninth grade are able to speak with a teacher independently by senior year.

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In my experience, most teachers make a good faith effort to collect missing assignments from students. However, that depends on how busy and stressed out they are. Give how difficult things have been for the past two years, our stress levels are through the roof. And while I certainly hope that your son’s teachers will follow up with him when he’s missing something, advocating for himself is an important life skill that will serve him beyond high school.

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I wish your son good luck!

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

I’m looking for book suggestions for my 13-year-old son—a VERY reluctant reader with some reading comprehension issues. The last book we read together (it works best for us if we take turns reading) was Ender’s Game, and before that Adventures of Zorro. He can handle fairly adult subject matter and doesn’t like things “dumbed down.” The only caveat is that it cannot be an advanced reading level. Some things he likes are fantasy like Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and military history—ancient Romans, Ottoman Empire, Samurai, etc., as well as Star Wars, but we are open to all suggestions!

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—Raising a Reluctant Reader

Dear RaRR,

If he liked Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card has of course published a bunch of other books. I don’t buy them new because I like to vote with my feet, but I’ll occasionally pick them up in thrift stores.

How about Isaac Asimov’s books? They’re generally interesting to high school kids but written at a reasonable level for middle school. His whole Foundation series might catch your son’s attention. Same goes for many Ursula K. Le Guin novels, such as Wizard of Earthsea or the Annals of the Western Shore trilogy. He’d probably enjoy Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein. It has a pro-military tone typical of the publication era, which could catalyze some interesting discussions. Or what about Shogun by James Clavell? Ken Liu has a series called the Dandelion Dynasty and a book of short stories titled The Paper Menagerie. Come to think of it, short stories are often less intimidating to reluctant readers.

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The other thing you might consider is classics like The Count of Monte Cristo—wait, hear me out. That book is enormous and can be cumbersome for even enthusiastic readers, but what if you read the graphic novel or watched the movie first? I’ve found that when I give a synopsis or show a movie version to my students (which I do with Romeo and Juliet, for example), they are much more able to digest the text.

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Lastly, I don’t know if you guys have abandoned any books, but I’m a big proponent of doing that. It’s good practice in general but especially for reluctant readers. Avoid slogging. Give a book 40-50 pages, and then if he’s not on board, ask him if he wants to ditch it and try something else.

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Regardless, you’re doing a great thing for your son by being invested in his reading—keep it up.

—Ms. Scott (high school teacher, North Carolina)

I have a son who is 11 (so theoretically sixth grade), who is accelerated a minimum of two years in each subject and therefore is counted as an eighth grader. However, he has missed…a lot of school due to illness. A minimum of 7 days in quarters 1-3, and now four weeks into Q4 he’s not attended 13 days of school. These are clearly defined illnesses (active Omicron and associated quarantine counted for 9 days for instance, local stomach bug for two or three days, allergies so bad to need a day off), and the school has been great about sending work home and he’s generally been great about doing it. His grades have suffered a little, but on the level of an A to a B+ in most cases.

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Given all of this, how much would you worry? The school is very flexible and has no concerns so far, and is assuming he will be in a ninth grade curriculum for most subjects next year, but 30 days is a lot of school to miss, even if about half of that has been made up with some form of virtual instruction.

A secondary question: He tends to fly through his makeup work and gets far lower marks (C+) compared to anything he’s in class for (A). Any advice on getting him to slow down on his makeup work? We don’t care about the grades. We do care about him learning the material and not missing instruction if possible.

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—Slow Down?

Dear Slow Down,

I would not worry about the missed days if he is learning the content and mastering the skills required to advance. It’s not ideal to miss school, of course, but at your son’s age, a great deal of learning can be done independently. The real loss is likely in his opportunity to collaborate with peers, negotiate friendships, resolve conflict, and manage his relationships with teachers, coaches, etc. These are the skills that make in-person school so very important, even when a student is capable of mastering much of the content independently. But these skills can also be practiced in activities outside of school, through things like sports, drama, summer camp, arts classes, Scouting, and the like.

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If your son’s teachers feel confident about his academic progress, you can, too.

As for the independent vs. in-person learning, it’s likely that not having peers to whom he can compare the quality and quantity of his work is impacting him negatively. When students work in isolation, their understanding of excellence is often entirely dependent upon their own opinion and judgment. In class, however, kids can eyeball the work of others, ask questions of their peers, and compare their efforts to those around them. Maybe your son could find a way on those at-home learning days to connect with a peer in school to compare work, or you could ask teachers to provide examples of excellence to which your son can compare. This may help.

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—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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