Getting (Over) Involved: How Much Homework Help is Too Much Homework Help?

By Lela Nargi

Tales of kindergartners bringing home an hour or more of homework a night seem to be abounding. Which means for parents, the pressure to be involved in kids’ academic lives compounds as we attempt to help them succeed—whatever we think that means anymore. But how much involvement is too much—or not enough? And how can we be sure we’re actually helping rather than hindering?

We know in our hearts that we’re not meant to do our kids’ homework for them. But the level at which we assist “is age-related,” says Anita Harvey, senior executive director of the 92nd Street Y  in Manhattan, which offers afterschool programs for small kids through teens. “You don’t want to create more stress for them, but you need to work on building an understanding of what they should be able to do on their own, because ultimately, you want to empower them” to complete their work on their own. This means acting as what Harvey calls their “safety net”—especially when they are very small—so they know if they don’t get things right the first time out, “you’ll help them understand how to get the correct answer.”

But especially as kids get older, it’s important to remember that helping does not mean doing, even if that results in our kids turning in what we may deem inferior work. For Harvey, failure is an important lesson—albeit one that can be hard to swallow, oftentimes for grownups more than kids. “Parents don’t want their kids to fail, but it’s important for children to learn the consequences of not completing something, and how to bounce back. That’s an important life lesson: You can’t always be perfect. If we expect them to be perfect, how can they learn to recover from a bump in the road?”

This doesn’t mean that we should set a goal of eventually disassociating ourselves altogether from what our kids are up to academically—far from it. Just, our involvement should morph over time. Harvey, who has three kids, the oldest of whom is 15, says, “I’m even involved in my teen’s work. I come home and say, Do you need any help? Did you complete everything? I keep the conversation going.” Time and again, research has shown that such open dialog with our children bares enormous benefits. Says Kimberly O’Malley, a senior vice president of research and development at Pearson, “When parents engage with children around school, we find that kids not only have better test scores and academic performance, but they also have better attendance, they like school more, they graduate at higher rates, and they eventually find job success.”

O’Malley recommends seeking meaningful conversations with kids around their school day—beyond asking the standard, What did you do today? Who did you have lunch with? “When we dig in and ask deeper questions”—about a book a child is reading, say, and how he identifies with the characters and decisions they’ve made—“that leads to a richer, more meaningful understanding” of what he’s thinking and feeling. Which in turn enhances our relationship.

Harvey is all for this sort of engagement, too, although in addition to conversation, she advocates for “real life” experiences: connecting school learning with what’s actually going on around us in our communities. As an example, she sites the building of a new bridge near her home. “It’s an enormous engineering project, and I was just amazed at what was happening,” she says. Partly through Harvey’s efforts, the principal at her son’s school organized a visit with the engineers in charge of the bridge project. “It’s connecting these many different pieces that help our kids succeed in academics,” she says. And hopefully, “You’ve been setting the stage for their success all along.”

Photograph by D Sharon Pruitt/Pink Sherbet Photography via Flickr/Creative Commons.