When Kids Need Help With Homework

On Monday afternoon my eight year old son asked me to help with his homework. His class is reading the novel, Stone Fox, and his assignment was to answer the question, “Does the grandfather have a sense of humor?” The students were asked to make an argument, cite an example from the text, and finally, to draw a picture of the dog in the story, Searchlight.
I admired my son’s decision to complete this work on Monday, since it was not due until Friday. He apparently has not inherited my tendency to procrastinate. (“Procrastinators of the World Unite…Tomorrow!”)
He knew the sentence he wanted to cite–the part about the grandfather pretending to be a scarecrow to fool his grandson—but he did not know how to use quotation marks. He found the section and I guided him in the placement of the quotation marks.
Once he had completed the written part of the assignment, it was time to draw, but he announced, “I can’t draw dogs!” It makes me cringe to hear a child express frustration. Even though I know that frustration does not harm a child – that it is, in fact, an important and positive feeling for a person to face and work through — it’s hard to refrain from erasing a child’s frustration by fixing every problem. I’m no artist, but I certainly could have outlined a dog for my son. But then I would have robbed him of a learning experience that could have helped him gain confidence in his abilities. Showing him how to draw the dog would only reinforce his feeling of artistic ineptitude.
This is one of the many instances in which an adult’s help can hinder the child’s cognitive and emotional development. The child allows the adult to take over the task and then feels less competent as a result. Magda Gerber instructed parents to intervene minimally with infants when they are problem solving, and I have found that her approach applies to older children too. “[B]y allowing them to do what they are capable of, by restraining ourselves from rescuing them too often, by waiting and waiting and waiting, by giving minimal help when they really need it, we allow our infants to learn and grow at their own time, and in their own way.”
I am going to make a controversial statement: parents should not sit down to do homework with a child. Homework is designed by a teacher to be within a child’s capabilities. Unfortunately, I now know many bright and capable children who believe they cannot manage schoolwork—or at least the level of work their parents expect—without the aid of the parents, babysitters and tutors. On their own they are not good enough. These children are robbed of the self-confidence and independence that they could have had if parents stayed out of the way.
Parents can give productive assistance by being available if the child asks for help. Then they are advised to give the minimum direction necessary to allow the child to continue to struggle with the problem himself and ultimately own both his process and his accomplishments.
This rule of thumb applies equally to infants as older children. If an infant’s ball rolls under a low table, the parent’s best tactic is the following: first, wait and see if the child even wants to retrieve the ball; he may just want to look at it, or he might move on to something else. Second, let the child make his own attempt at solving the problem, even if aggravation mounts. Third, if frustration persists, talk the child through the process of retrieving the ball. If that does not work, move the table the tiniest bit so that the child can then retrieve the ball. We then help the infant to be as autonomous as possible.
Older children need to continue this experience of autonomy. Children find interest in ‘process.’ Adults are more result-oriented. With this in mind I tried to think of a way to help my son as minimally as I could. He continued to insist that he could not draw a dog.
Stone Fox rested on the table in front of us and had a picture of Searchlight, the husky on the cover. “There’s a picture of the dog right here,” I pointed out. My son checked to see if he could trace the picture, but his book report paper was not transparent enough. “Nice try,” I said, relieved that he would have to be more creative than that. He and I were both at a loss for what to do next. I waited. His alarm was growing. I winged it. Looking at the dog in the picture, I asked, “Okay, what’s the first thing you see?” “I see the spot,” he answered. There was a white spot on the forehead of Searchlight (hence his name). “Okay, draw that, “ I suggested. He drew a small, lonely circle on the page. “Now what do you see?” “I see his mouth,” he said, and he drew a suspended mouth with teeth under the spot. He went on to see Searchlight’s eyes, ears, legs and then a tail, and soon he had drawn a dog that satisfied him.
I don’t always remember to trust a child and stay out of the way. One time last year I looked at my son’s finished homework and saw so many spelling errors that I blurted out, “Do you want me to help you with some spelling mistakes?” “No! We correct it in class!” he scolded me. I felt chagrined, but smiled to myself. My son has blazed his own educational path since infancy and has seldom needed me to light the way.

On a recent afternoon my eight year old son asked me to help with his homework. His class is reading the novel Stone Fox and his assignment was to answer the question, “Does the grandfather have a sense of humor?” The students were asked to make an argument, cite an example from the text, and finally, to draw a picture of the dog in the story, Searchlight.

I admired my son’s decision to complete this work on that Monday, since it wasn’t due until Friday. He apparently has not inherited my tendency to procrastinate. (“Procrastinators of the World Unite…Tomorrow!”)

He knew the sentence he wanted to cite–the part about the grandfather pretending to be a scarecrow to fool his grandson—but he didn’t know how to use quotation marks. He found the section and I guided him in the placement of the quotation marks.

Once he had completed the written part of the assignment, it was time to draw, but he announced, “I can’t draw dogs!” It makes me cringe to hear a child express frustration. Even though I know that frustration does not harm a child – that it is, in fact, an important and positive feeling for a person to face and work through — it’s hard to refrain from erasing a child’s frustration by fixing every problem. I’m no artist, but I certainly could have outlined a dog for my son. But then I would have robbed him of a learning experience that could have helped him gain confidence in his abilities. Showing him how to draw the dog would only reinforce his feeling of artistic ineptitude.

This is one of the many instances in which an adult’s help can hinder the child’s cognitive and emotional development. The child allows the adult to take over the task and then feels less competent as a result. Infant expert Magda Gerber instructed parents to intervene minimally with babies when they are problem solving, and I have found that her approach applies to older children too. “[B]y allowing them to do what they are capable of, by restraining ourselves from rescuing them too often, by waiting and waiting and waiting, by giving minimal help when they really need it, we allow our infants to learn and grow at their own time, and in their own way.”

I know this is controversial, but I don’t believe we should sit down to do homework with our children. Homework is designed by a teacher to be within a child’s capabilities. Unfortunately, I now know many bright and capable children who believe they cannot manage schoolwork—or at least the level of work their parents expect—without the aid of the parents, babysitters and tutors. On their own they are not good enough. These children are robbed of the self-confidence and independence that they could have had if parents stayed out of the way. (And according to clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel, tutoring can actually encourage children to stop listening and focusing in class because they know they can depend on private instruction.)

Parents can give productive assistance by being available if the child asks for help. Then they are advised to give the minimum direction necessary to allow the child to continue to struggle with the problem himself and ultimately own both his process and his accomplishments.

This rule of thumb applies equally to infants as older children. If an infant’s ball rolls under a low table, the parent’s best tactic is the following: first, wait and see if the child even wants to retrieve the ball; he may just want to look at it, or he might move on to something else. Second, let the child make his own attempt at solving the problem, even if aggravation mounts. Third, if frustration persists, talk the child through the process of retrieving the ball. If that does not work, move the table the tiniest bit so that the child can then retrieve the ball. We then help the infant to be as autonomous as possible.

Older children need to continue this experience of autonomy. Children find interest in ‘process.’ Adults are more result-oriented. With this in mind I tried to think of a way to help my son as minimally as I could. He continued to insist that he could not draw a dog.

Stone Fox rested on the table in front of us and had a picture of Searchlight, the husky on the cover. “There’s a picture of the dog right here,” I pointed out. My son checked to see if he could trace the picture, but his book report paper was not transparent enough. “Nice try,” I said, relieved that he would have to be more creative than that. He and I were both at a loss for what to do next. I waited. His alarm was growing. I winged it. Looking at the dog in the picture, I asked, “Okay, what’s the first thing you see?” “I see the spot,” he answered. There was a white spot on the forehead of Searchlight (hence his name). “Okay, draw that, “ I suggested. He drew a small, lonely circle on the page. “Now what do you see?” “I see his mouth,” he said, and he drew a suspended mouth with teeth under the spot. He went on to see Searchlight’s eyes, ears, legs and then a tail, and soon he had drawn a dog that satisfied him.

I don’t always remember to trust a child and stay out of the way. One time last year I looked at my son’s finished homework and saw so many spelling errors that I blurted out, “Do you want me to help you with some spelling mistakes?” “No! We correct it in class!” he scolded me. I felt chagrined, but smiled to myself. My son has blazed his own educational path since infancy and has seldom needed me to light the way.

12 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. That situation with homework has to strike a chord with every parent. I can’t say that I’ve always stayed out of the way (as I should have), but I have noticed that frustration almost always precedes growth.

  2. My 7 year-old granddaughter asked me to draw a half-moon she saw on a poster in my studio. I told her I would not want to do that because I don’t believe adults should draw on children’s art work. She accepted that without doubt, although she was not smiling, (we have basic trust in each other, learned since her birth), and, looking up on the wall, began to see what she could do to recreate the image. Within a few minutes she had finished her effort and declared “It’s a seahorse!” What a revelation of self-confidence to her and affirmation of my confidence in her. That’s what it takes to let go – “nature’s plan,” Magda says – we need to grow confidence in our children and ourselves to “do less, observe more and enjoy more”.

  3. avatar Carol Pinto says:

    Your advice to “trust the child and stay out of the way” takes me back almost fifty years to something a four year old child (coincidentally named Janet) taught me during my first year as an intern in a Montessori school. For days, she would wander aimlessly about the classroom holding a small basket of alphabet letters, a blank expression on her face. I grew concerned that she wasn’t engaging with the materials and might have some “special need” that had gone undiagosed. One day she picked out the letter D and handed it to me. “This is for David,” she said. Then she handed me an S and said, “This is for Sherry.” On and on it went until she had presented me with the first letter of the first name of every child in the class.I was dazzled by her. Her expression hadn’t been blank. It was a gaze that looked inward and outward at the same time, one that showed me what treasures we can find when we see things from a child’s point of view.

    I’m reminded of Magda’s advice to “Be careful about what you are teaching. It may interfere with something they might be learning.”

  4. avatar Magdalena says:

    Oh! Thank you for this blog it is very needed. I agree with your point, Children have the right to learn their own way and on their own time.

  5. Hi, Janet. I enjoy your post and felt it was very well written. I actually do sit with my children, though I don’t “hover”. I keep myself available as I prepare lessons for my class, write, read or do my own homework. I do check their homework with them (they are beginning to learn to double check their own work) and have them correct their mistakes. I do not give them answers or do it for them though. I also like to extend on the topics by exploring encyclopedias and the internet, which they really enjoy! My children love school, are avid readers and get great grades!

    1. It sounds like you’ve found an excellent balance — providing assistance, but still fostering independence — and it’s paying off for your children. Cool!

  6. My husband and I have always trusted our children to complete their own work. We have always asked about it, but have never forced a child to show it to us unless it was requested or required by the teacher, nor did we look on-line for missing assignments.

    That all changed last fall when we found our daughter had looked us in the eye and lied about doing her homework for the entire first half of the second grading period. She had done NONE in any class. This is a bright, GATE/Honors student who went from straight As in 5th grade to Ds and Fs when the switch to middle school came. What would you do? We cancelled all winter break plans (my husband and I were both off work) and she completed every single assignment. We still didn’t do the work for her, but I did — for the first time ever — sit with her each day for a set amount of time, until she got the hang of what was expected of her. She then worked independently… 2 weeks of vacation down the toilet. The lesson, priceless. Her teachers appreciated the support and were amazed by the quality of her assignment. We do want to trust her, but now ask specific questions about her assignments. She tells us about the work she has done, and now and then I drop in to the website to make sure she has been truthful. It has been quite a learning experience, but her grades rebounded and she learned how much her teachers appreciate diligent work and consistent effort.

    What would you do then?

    1. Dawn, honestly? I think the way you and your husband handled this sounds perfect.

      I’m no expert in adolescent psychology, but it might be a good idea to explore the social issues, or any other changes she’s experiencing in middle school to try to understand what might have happened… The change in your daughter from 5th to 6th Grade sounds so extreme. If I were you, I would want to know why.

  7. Thank you for this post! As a teacher, I can often tell when a parent has helped a lot or done the project themself. I understand that the parents are coming from a loving place, but I feel bad for the child. The child has been robbed of an opportunity to learn, to work, and to demonstrate their abilities. Homework is a tricky thing to navigate and I think this article can help parents to learn to trust their child’s abilities.

  8. I agree with us letting them do it. But my daughter thinks if she doesn’t nail it first time right in the 1st second (be it the picture, learning time tables) she starts crying. The crying that sounds as if she is in physical pain.
    I first got agitated. I even gave a hiding once or twice because she upset everyone in the house so much. I then decided to stop doing homework. Tell her to take 5 until she has calmed herself and try again. This happens every time and once she stops crying she aces it. She such a perfectionist (not from me at all). And it pains me to see here be so self critical? Am I handling it right?

    1. I would fully accept and allow her expressing her frustration, so that she can pass through those feelings with your support. Punishing her and getting agitated yourself will only make her more fearful and self-critical.

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