secret third thing

Is There A "Right Way" To Help My Kid With Their Homework?

Most kids need to learn to do homework in the same way they learn to swim or, even better, do their own laundry.

Good Enough Parent

How much should we help our kids with their homework? I barely remember getting any help from my own parents as a kid. Maybe they were busy, or maybe I rarely asked for help. And my son doesn’t, either. But we find ourselves micromanaging him to make sure he takes his time and does a good job. And I worry that it may actually be to his detriment. Is this diluting his sense of independence and accountability? Will it make him over-reliant on us? And will it skew his teacher’s view of how well he’s doing when he’s allowed to work independently?

Before I had kids, I did my final internship as a school psychologist in an outrageously wealthy school district. The parenting was beyond intensive, I felt. The kids, spoiled and neutered of their own confidence or competence for getting by without parental intrusion. Mothers in $200 yoga pants showed up at all hours in the school offices to micromanage (or sometimes, just because they were bored). One day on my commute, I heard the psychologist Madeline Levine being interviewed on the radio. Levine’s work (her books include The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids) focuses on children and teens in communities like this one, who, she believes, are so over-protected that they launch into the world not knowing how to recover from minor setbacks or, say, do their own laundry. A mother called in to ask Levine a question: If she noticed that her third-grader left her completed homework at home, should she bring it to school for her so her child didn’t get a poor grade, or let them learn from their mistake by dealing with the natural consequences?

As you can imagine, Levine gently chastised the version of this mother who would take time out of her own day to haul a forgotten homework assignment into the school office on behalf of her poor child — and I chastised along with her. Now, 10 years and two kids later, I know better. Though Levine’s work is richer than this one anecdote, this mother’s question (and yours) aren’t as simple as experts want us to believe.

Homework stress is born of a culture that takes parental oversight as a given. It takes work to buck these trends.

This conundrum gets at one of the central themes of our current parenting culture: oversight and the conditions that encourage it. We want our kids to roam the streets in packs like we used to, to have unsupervised play dates, to learn how to make a simple quesadilla. We want them, most importantly, to feel confident and capable. But the structures of our modern society, and the habits we’ve picked up watching the parents around us, virtually and IRL, complicate the free-choice scenario that psychologists like Levine lay out. There don’t seem to be any other kids out there to roam with, we feel that other parents expect us to monitor their children, we don’t hear about parents letting their kids work the burners anymore. As we’re all probably tired of hearing, on average, parents today spend much more time with their children than our parents did with us. The kind of independence your parents gave you with homework was probably equal parts ambient cultural-parenting expectations, and logistics. When a child falls in the forest, and their parents are constantly checking on them because that’s what parents do these days, will they learn to pick themselves back up?

Culture influences the logistics of our parenting lives. If your children go to a school where most of the students come from households where parents work multiple jobs, or where families are transient, it’s unlikely that homework will be designed for much parental intervention; it just wouldn’t be fair or appropriate. For this reason, many schools leave big, labor-intensive projects to be done during the school day, and assign homework as remedial practice, something they might encourage, but would never expect parents to oversee. Other schools, because of the level of financial and educational resources available to their families, assume an enormous amount of parental involvement in homework, and plan accordingly. Parents of even young children may find themselves staring down a 10-part assignment, complete with researching and gathering specimens and writing, tasks that even the most precocious elementary-schooler would not be able to do on their own.

What parents need to do to support their children with homework isn’t some objective parenting rule: it’s impacted by the assumptions, often unspoken, of the spaces we live in. You can be the parent who pushes back against this — and I encourage you to try it — but it’s not just an individual problem. Homework stress is born of a culture that takes parental oversight as a given. It takes work to buck these trends. Some explicit boundaries — that your partner, if you have one, should also agree to — might be necessary. We help for 10 minutes a night and after that we write a note that this is really too much to be expecting from home. Or we get really clear on what our kid can do on their own and what they need us for, and ask them to come and get us for our parts.

If your kiddo is really struggling with the content of the homework — remembering how to subtract with borrowing, for example — I would certainly do some re-teaching if needed (and if you also happen to remember how to do that). But I would want their teacher to be very clear on what they can do on their own and what they need a lot of hand-holding on. If you write the essay for them, or re-teach the whole math lesson several times, the person who needs to keep track of what they’ve learned and how well will be getting false information. Some families make a plan with the teacher that they will circle problems that were done with parent help to communicate just that.

Homework is, mostly, in my opinion, and in the opinion of many researchers, totally pointless, so your kid doing a half-assed job on it might mean less than you think it does.

All of that aside, there’s the issue of what to do when your values of independence and autonomy seem to be conflicting with your values of hard work and thoughtful effort. Maybe the homework is reasonable and your kid can generally manage it, but it’s meaningful to you to have them give a bit more. Just like my child’s pediatrician counseled early on not to get too hung up on what he was eating every day, but to think about diet as a longer-term project, I would encourage you to zoom up to the bigger picture of your child’s work ethic. Often we parents forget that our kids are spending hours upon hours each day, out of our sight, tirelessly completing tasks assigned to them by adults, often with little satisfaction. If your kid is doing this, but slacking a bit on the homework, that’s quite different from a kid who is constantly turning in careless work. Homework is, mostly, in my opinion, and in the opinion of many researchers, totally pointless, so your kid doing a half-assed job on it might mean less than you think it does.

If you want to be involved in a healthy way, the best time you can spend with your child and homework is on building what we psych nerds call executive functioning skills. These are the softer skills behind the content learning that goes in to every completed worksheet or term paper — how to set-up spaces for doing work that promote your sustained focus, how to break down long-term assignments into smaller parts so you don’t get slammed the night before something is due, how to slow down when the task requires more care and check your work when you’re done. Some unicorn kids just get all of this intuitively, and hats off to them. But most kids, especially but not only the neurodivergent ones, need to learn to do homework in the same way they learn to swim or, even better, do their own laundry.

Honing executive function is great because it will help them in endless situations, and, ideally, it shifts the onus from you to them. If your kid has a multi-step project like a book report, for example, you can sit them down as soon as it’s assigned, draw a little calendar of the days until it’s due, and help them do some “backwards planning” by asking, “What will this look like when it’s done? What steps will go into making it that way? What materials will you need? How long do you think each step will take and what day will you do them on?" Or, maybe you work with them to develop a homework checklist that lives in their designated homework space, and reminds them to check their own work.

The first time (or two), you may have to sit and model these things completely, but the idea is that you gradually release the responsibility to your kid. The hope is that at some point you can just say, “Did you make your calendar with all the parts?” and they will know what you mean. This stuff not only teaches them skills they can use their whole life, but also, by design, it gets you out of the picture.

Because, as you have predicted, they will one day be an independent and accountable adult, treating their own stains and knowing somewhere in the back of their 5G-implanted minds that you did the best you could.

The Good Enough Parent is an advice column for parents who are sick of parenting advice. Let Sarah answer your questions about the messy realities of parenting! Send her your questions via this anonymous form or by emailing her at