School

Hey, Parents of K–5 Kids: Hands Off the Homework!

If they don’t ask for help, you don’t need to offer.

A father and son do homework together.
Photo by Wavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

The beginning of a new school year can be stressful for kids and parents alike. But one thing parents of elementary-school kids shouldn’t have to stress over is supervising homework daily, because we now have evidence that such supervision actually may not have a positive impact on children’s academic achievement.

While there is an ongoing debate among educators whether homework is generally beneficial in elementary school, in my view, it depends on the nature of the work assigned. Developmentally appropriate homework on relevant material that can be done by the child independently (without need of adult supervision) is, I think, contributing to formation of habits that will serve the child well as they move through their education journey. The “10 minutes per grade” rule seems like a reasonable practice (so that a second grader, for example, might be asked to read for 20 minutes a day).

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That question of “adult supervision” is where my new research comes in. We know parental help with homework has been long hailed by educators and policymakers as an effective mechanism to help children succeed, but having studied parenting practices as a sociologist of education and childhood for over two decades, I questioned whether data actually supported this widely held claim. As it turns out, my recent research, conducted at Penn State, suggests that parents could be wasting their time.

My study, using two nationally representative datasets that each tracked about 20,000 kids from kindergarten through fifth grade, showed no benefits of parental help with homework. In other words, we found no statistically significant association between parental help with homework, as measured by level of intensity (from everyday help, to less than once a week) and self-reported during parent interviews at each wave of data collection, and subsequent math and reading achievement. While my research cannot prove the mechanisms by which potential benefits of parental help with homework for this age group are outweighed, my team and I suggested three possible explanations: cognitive loss, adverse effects on home emotional climate, and deferred responsibility.

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Under pressure to get homework completed, parents might think they’re helping their kids by offering the correct answers. Research by others, however, suggests that this practice deprives students of the main purpose of homework—to sharpen problem-solving and other skills. This parental intervention may also mask a child’s skills or knowledge gap that would have otherwise been discovered by a teacher.

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The daily involvement of parents with a child’s homework has also been associated with a negative effect on the emotional climate of the family. Parents can be more critical than teachers, or they may apply too much pressure, or create an overall stressful situation by being too controlling and intrusive. That kind of parental behavior has been linked in other research to lower academic achievement, whereas supportive involvement has a positive effect.

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Parents constantly checking a child’s homework for completion and accuracy may also send a message to the child that the responsibility of finishing homework falls on their parents, and not themselves. Developing a sense of responsibility for completing a task is an important behavior that a child can cultivate through homework.

I’m not suggesting that parents shouldn’t be involved at all in their children’s homework. Parents can enhance their children’s learning experience at home by providing a living space conducive to learning (a quiet atmosphere, free from distractions), and conveying a clear message about the importance of education—this is what other researchers have labeled “stage setting”. And it’s important for the child to know that if they really struggle, there is an adult who can help. But the help shouldn’t be provided automatically or imposed.

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Parents can also redirect the time they would have spent fighting with kids over homework into more beneficial activities that boost kids’ emotional development, which has been shown to positively impact their future academic success, such as calm and positive conversations about school and their friends, what they enjoy in classes, and their academic goals. When parents develop warm, close relationships with their children, conveying the importance of doing well in school becomes a natural part of conversation, without being perceived as putting pressure on the child or “lecturing.”

Parental support is crucially important for children’s developing sense of self, as well as building their confidence to achieve various goals. Equally effective is encouraging your child to put forward their best effort, as opposed to achieving a certain defined outcome, such as being a straight A student.

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Parents are misplacing their energy when they help their kids with homework. My research, which controls for the variety of family and parental characteristics, including income and education level of the parent, family structure and the child’s achievement, challenges widely accepted guidance, including some from the U.S. Department of Education, that promotes homework as “an opportunity for families to be involved in their children’s education.” I think it may, instead, be causing unnecessary stress to kids and parents alike.

As your elementary-aged children bring their homework home with them this fall, resist the temptation to get too involved. Allow them space to struggle and work through problems on their own, even if that means they won’t always come to the correct conclusions. Taking a small hit on an insignificant assignment now may set your child up for even greater success in the future.

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