The conventional wisdom – children do better when parents are actively involved in their children’s education, meeting with teachers, helping them with their homework, and scores of other things – has now been challenged by a groundbreaking study by American sociologists Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris. Their longitudinal survey of American families across socioeconomic and ethnic groups spanned from the 1980s to the 2000s and assessed more than 60 measures of participation, at home and in school.

In The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement with Children’s Education, they conclude that parental involvement is overrated. ‘In fact, the most form of parental involvement, like observing a child’s class, contacting a school about child’s behaviour, helping a child decide a child’s high school course, or helping a child with homework, do not improve student achievement,’ they say. ‘In some cases, they actually hinder it.’

Robinson and Harris were quite startled by what they found when they examined whether regular help with homework had a positive effect on children’s academic performance. ‘Regardless of a family’s class, racial or ethnic background, or a child’s grade level, consistent homework help almost never improved test scores or grades,’ they say. ‘Most parents appear to be ineffective at helping their children with homework. Even more surprising to us was that when parents regularly helped with homework, kids usually performed worse.’

How could parental help with homework bring the scores down? Probably many parents have forgotten, or never truly understood, the things children learn in school. Nevertheless, the study revealed that Asian children, including Chinese, Korean and Indian, benefitted from regular help with homework, but this benefit was limited to the grades they got during adolescence, it did not affect their test scores.

What should parents do? Their answer is simple: ‘They should set the stage and then leave it.’ But what kind of stage? If children whose brains are still developing are constantly juggling between homework and texting or listening to iTunes and so forth there will never be enough depth and times spent on homework to go as deep or as far as they might have. Yet, parents need not be homework police (hovering like a helicopter over their children while they are doing their homework) or enthusiastic homework helper (rushing to help children when they are unable to solve a problem instead of giving them time to think independently).

The goal of their involvement must be to improve learning, not test scores. They can help by respecting their children’s learning style and space: some prefer absolute silence, others like to listen to soft music; some like to daydream or watch YouTube for a while and then intensely focus on their homework, others prefer to do their homework without any distraction; some like to concentrate on one task, others like to multitask (research doesn’t say never to multitask; advise your children not to multitask while they are trying to learn something new that they hope to remember). And they should forget about punishing their children for not doing their homework. This strategy never works and at times it backfires. They should let teachers intervene if the child isn’t doing homework correctly or regularly. Meeting with teachers to discuss their child’s low scores don’t really help the child do well. It just makes the child more anxious.

Parents should provide support in the form of prompts, hints, suggestions and reminders rather than doing their children’s homework. Research shows that parental support for autonomy instead of parent rule setting is associated with higher standardised test scores, higher class grades and more homework completed. Laurence Steinberg, Temple University psychology professor and author of The Ten Best Basic Principles of Parenting, advises parents not to help with homework unless:

  • the child asks for something specific that is beyond the child’s capacity;
  • the child doesn’t understand what the homework assignment is (and parents can explain it concisely and confidently); or
  • the teacher has explicitly set an assignment that requires the parent and child to work together.

Overprotective parents not only help with homework; they also make sure that they pick their children’s university courses. Studies have found that more parents help children select a college course, the less satisfied the student is with that course. So much so for helicopter parents’ dream of seeing their child wearing a stethoscope around their neck and examining a patient or wearing a barrister wig and cross-examining a criminal.

In her best-selling book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, American journalist Jennifer Senior says that parents are making themselves miserable by believing they always have to maximise their children’s success. Below is an excerpt from a scene she describes from 1540 hours of video footage –collected by University of California researchers – documenting day-to-day lives of 32 middle-class families which captured all the fights between couples, all the negotiations between parents and their children. In this scene, the mother is approaching her eight-year-old son, the oldest of two, who’s seated at the computer in the den, absorbed in a movie. At issue is his homework, which he still hasn’t done. Mother and son are arguing –tensely, angrily – and she is pulling on his arm.

The boy reaches for the keyboard. ‘I’m putting it on pause!’

‘I want you to do your homework,’ his mother repeats. ‘You are not – ’

‘I know,’ the son whines. ‘I’m going to pause it!’

His mother’s not buying it. What she sees is him stalling. She pulls him off the chair.

‘No, you’re not,’ says his mother. ‘You’re still not listening!’

‘Yes I am!’

‘No, you’re not!’

[The tense argument continues for a long while and the son is still watching the movie when the recorded scene ends.]

In my opinion, the mother would be better off if she did her son’s homework like novelist James Ellroy’s father (‘I got good grades with minimum effort. My accountant father did my math homework and prepared test crib sheets for me. I was free to read and dream away my off-school hours.’). The son may turn out to be a famous novelist. A win-win situation for both mother and son. Just kidding.

© Surendra Verma 2016

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