Don’t Help Your Kids With Their Homework

The Atlantic
And other insights from a ground- breaking study of how parents impact children’s academic achievement
One of the central tenets of raising kids in America is that parents should be actively involved in their children’s education: meeting with teachers, volunteering at school, helping with homework, and doing a hundred other things that few working parents have time for. These obligations are so baked into American values that few parents stop to ask whether they’re worth the effort.

Until this January, few researchers did, either. In the largest-ever study of how parental involvement affects academic achievement, Keith Robinson, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Angel L. Harris, a sociology professor at Duke, mostly found that it doesn’t. The researchers combed through nearly three decades’ worth of longitudinal surveys of American parents and tracked 63 different measures of parental participation in kids’ academic lives, from helping them with homework, to talking with them about college plans, to volunteering at their schools. In an attempt to show whether the kids of more-involved parents improved over time, the researchers indexed these measures to children’s academic performance, including test scores in reading and math.
What they found surprised them. Most measurable forms of parental involvement seem to yield few academic dividends for kids, or even to backfire—regardless of a parent’s race, class, or level of education.

Do you review your daughter’s homework every night? Robinson and Harris’s data, published in The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement With Children’s Education, show that this won’t help her score higher on standardized tests. Once kids enter middle school, parental help with homework can actually bring test scores down, an effect Robinson says could be caused by the fact that many parents may have forgotten, or never truly understood, the material their children learn in school.

Similarly, students whose parents frequently meet with teachers and principals don’t seem to improve faster than academically comparable peers whose parents are less present at school. Other essentially useless parenting interventions: observing a kid’s class; helping a teenager choose high-school courses; and, especially, disciplinary measures such as punishing kids for getting bad grades or instituting strict rules about when and how homework gets done. This kind of meddling could leave children more anxious than enthusiastic about school, Robinson speculates. “Ask them ‘Do you want to see me volunteering more? Going to school social functions? Is it helpful if I help you with homework?’ ” he told me. “We think about informing parents and schools what they need to do, but too often we leave the child out of the conversation.”
One of the reasons parental involvement in schools has become dogma is that the government actively incentivizes it. Since the late 1960s, the federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on programs that seek to engage parents—especially low-income parents—with their children’s schools. In 2001, No Child Left Behind required schools to establish parent committees and communicate with parents in their native languages. The theory was that more active and invested mothers and fathers could help close the test-score gap between middle-class and poor students. Yet until the new study, nobody had used the available data to test the assumption that close relationships between parents and schools improve student achievement.

While Robinson and Harris largely disproved that assumption, they did find a handful of habits that make a difference, such as reading aloud to young kids (fewer than half of whom are read to daily) and talking with teenagers about college plans. But these interventions don’t take place at school or in the presence of teachers, where policy makers exert the most influence—they take place at home.

What’s more, although conventional wisdom holds that poor children do badly in school because their parents don’t care about education, the opposite is true. Across race, class, and education level, the vast majority of American parents report that they speak with their kids about the importance of good grades and hope that they will attend college. Asian American kids may perform inordinately well on tests, for example, but their parents are not much more involved at school than Hispanic parents are—not surprising, given that both groups experience language barriers. So why are some parents more effective at helping their children translate these shared values into achievement?
Robinson and Harris posit that greater financial and educational resources allow some parents to embed their children in neighborhoods and social settings in which they meet many college-educated adults with interesting careers. Upper-middle-class kids aren’t just told a good education will help them succeed in life. They are surrounded by family and friends who work as doctors, lawyers, and engineers and who reminisce about their college years around the dinner table. Asian parents are an interesting exception; even when they are poor and unable to provide these types of social settings, they seem to be able to communicate the value and appeal of education in a similarly effective manner.

As part of his research, Robinson conducted informal focus groups with his undergraduate statistics students at the University of Texas, asking them about how their parents contributed to their achievements. He found that most had few or no memories of their parents pushing or prodding them or getting involved at school in formal ways. Instead, students described mothers and fathers who set high expectations and then stepped back. “These kids made it!,” Robinson told me. “You’d expect they’d have the type of parental involvement we’re promoting at the national level. But they hardly had any of that. It really blew me away.”

Robinson and Harris’s findings add to what we know from previous research by the sociologist Annette Lareau, who observed conversations in homes between parents and kids during the 1990s. Lareau found that in poor and working-class households, children were urged to stay quiet and show deference to adult authority figures such as teachers. In middle-class households, kids learned to ask critical questions and to advocate for themselves—behaviors that served them well in the classroom.
Robinson and Harris chose not to address a few potentially powerful types of parental involvement, from hiring tutors or therapists for kids who are struggling, to opening college savings accounts. And there’s the fact that, regardless of socioeconomic status, some parents go to great lengths to seek out effective schools for their children, while others accept the status quo at the school around the corner.

Although Robinson and Harris didn’t look at school choice, they did find that one of the few ways parents can improve their kids’ academic performance—by as much as eight points on a reading or math test—is by getting them placed in the classroom of a teacher with a good reputation. This is one example for which race did seem to matter: white parents are at least twice as likely as black and Latino parents to request a specific teacher. Given that the best teachers have been shown to raise students’ lifetime earnings and to decrease the likelihood of teen pregnancy, this is no small intervention.

All in all, these findings should relieve anxious parents struggling to make time to volunteer at the PTA bake sale. But valuing parental involvement via test scores alone misses one of the ways in which parents most impact schools. Pesky parents are often effective, especially in public schools, at securing better textbooks, new playgrounds, and all the “extras” that make an educational community come to life, like art, music, theater, and after-school clubs. This kind of parental engagement may not directly affect test scores, but it can make school a more positive place for all kids, regardless of what their parents do or don’t do at home. Getting involved in your children’s schools is not just a way to give them a leg up—it could also be good citizenship.
DANA GOLDSTEIN is a staff writer at The Marshall Project. She is the author of the forthcoming book The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession.

Brutally Honest: Is it OK to let your child fail?

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
January 20, 2015

In ‘Brutally Honest’ series, Kelly Wallace tackles provocative parenting questions
An article on why parents should let their children fail went viral in January 2013
Studies: Helicopter parenting can lead to more depressed and less confident adults

Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN)Recently, my younger daughter left her class project, a time capsule, at the door so I would see it the minute I got home.

Her project wasn’t due for a month, and she took it upon herself to start it and finish it. I beamed at her great work ethic.

If the story ended here, I would proudly say I am one of those parents who is totally comfortable with the whole “letting my kids fail” concept, but alas, there is more.

You see, even though my daughter worked hard to create a unique time capsule — complete with a slipper, miniature soccer and basketball, chess set, Pokemon cards and cordless phone — I worried that the other kids, probably with help from their parents, would have much more elaborate and highly constructed time capsules. Plus, I thought my daughter didn’t quite complete the assignment.

She wanted to bring the project in the following morning. “I put my heart into it,” she told me.

No-brainer, right? But no, I was torn between not wanting to crush her spirit and making sure her project was viewed positively by her teacher and peers.
I think you can probably guess which feeling won out. She brought the project in after the weekend — and only after I had her re-read the assignment and add decorations and information.

There is no doubt in my mind she was prouder of her work before I meddled. Why on earth did I do such a thing?

Many of us good, well-meaning parents are scared of our children “not being right all the time” and are motivated by a desire to buck up our kids’ self-esteem when we’re actually doing more harm than good, according to Jessica Lahey, author of the upcoming book “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed,” which will be released in August.

Lahey, who has spent more than a decade teaching middle and high school students, has become somewhat of an expert in this area, after her article “Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail” in The Atlantic back in January 2013 went viral.

The article included an unforgettable anecdote: Lahey called a parent to inform her that her child would be punished for plagiarism only to learn from the mother that she, not her daughter, wrote the entire paper.

Sure, an extreme case, but an example of what many parents do, thinking they are actually helping their children.

“Every single time we turn around and say, ‘I’ll just do that for you’ or ‘Here let me help you with that,’ we are saying to them, ‘I don’t think you can do that for yourself,’ ” said Lahey, who is also a columnist for The New York Times and a contributor to The Atlantic and Vermont Public Radio.
“And that is really damaging over time. We create a really helpless culture of kids so that now when I talk to college professors, they say these kids show up to college unable to handle anything on their own.”

The research backs up just how dangerous our inability to let our children stumble and figure things out on their own can be for them as young adults.

A 2013 study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that helicopter parenting can lead to anxiety and depression in college students, and decreased feelings of autonomy and competence.

Another investigation, this one led by the University of Arizona, found that adults who were overparented have an exaggerated sense of entitlement, and more doubt about their ability to overcome challenges.

The study also found that helicopter parents have dependent and neurotic kids.

Why do we do it?

Part of the reason we step in, says Lahey, is because we want our kids to love us.

“We want to feel needed and so when we take that homework assignment to school for them and rescue them, we feel we get to check that box off today. ‘I was a good parent,'” said Lahey.
She writes in the book about her own struggles, how one morning, her younger child, who is now 11, worked really hard on his homework assignment and then left it on the coffee table.

“And I took to Facebook (and wrote) ‘Just for those of you who think this is easy for me, that homework assignment is sitting there on the table.'”

She did not take the homework to school, as at least one member of her Facebook community suggested she do, and was on “tenterhooks” all day, she said.

“But he came home at the end of the day and he’s like, ‘It’s fine. I talked to my teacher,'” said Lahey. “Giving kids the opportunity to problem solve when something goes wrong, there’s nothing better than that and when we take that away from them, it’s a real tragedy.”
In conversations with parents across the country, there was definite disagreement over just what letting a child fail means and just how far a parent can take it.

“I think when you use the word ‘fail’ you alienate a lot of people,” said the children’s television host Miss Lori, a mom of three. “I believe in allowing my children to stumble.”

Teaching them how to get up again is enormously important, said the social media strategist and contributor. “But fail, not so much, especially in school. Our education system is already failing them in most cities. Their school resume is too important and they have too few years to amass it.”

Allowing kids to “fail” has different meanings to parents, says Vicki Hoefle, author of “Duct Tape Parenting: A Less is More Approach to Raising Respectful, Responsible, and Resilient Kids.”

“And this is where some of the confusion comes in. Allowing your first-grader to fail a spelling test because they did study is much easier for a parent to deal with than allowing your eight-grader to fail science because he chose not to study and will have to repeat the class over the summer,” said Hoefle, whose newest book, “The Straight Talk on Parenting,” will be released in April.
Balance is key, says Avital Norman Nathman, a mom of an 8-year-old in Northhampton, Massachusetts, who blogs at The Mamafesto. We shouldn’t always let our kids “hang out to dry,” but we also need to realize part of our desire to see our kids succeed is our own ego.

“We see our successes in our own children so when we allow them to fail, that also kind of reflects on us … and so it’s uncomfortable but we need to get there because otherwise we’re going to have these helpless kids who either feel incredibly entitled and who would want that, or helpless, they don’t know how to do things for themselves,” said Norman Nathman, editor of the motherhood anthology “The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality.”

If we’re hurting our kids, how do we stop doing it?

In many ways, it’s so much easier not to let our kids fail, parents say.

Cecily Kellogg of Philadelphia remembers when her 8-year-old joined their local Junior Roller Derby team. In the middle of the first practice, she skated over to her mom shaking and crying because she felt she was slower than everyone and didn’t know the moves. She wanted to leave immediately, but her mom refused to take her home.

Her daughter was clinging to her, but Kellogg pried herself away and left her to her coaches.

The next practice her daughter still felt embarrassed and ashamed she wasn’t an expert but agreed to go inside the rink only after her mother left.

“Boy oh boy, did I want her to quit. Both times I walked away from her, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” said Kellogg. “Now? She’s absolutely crazy about roller derby and loves it. Can’t wait to go each week.”

Kellogg says the experience was not just about allowing her daughter to “fail” and learning the “hard way she wasn’t going to be the very best at what she did without practice.” It was also about “pushing her to keep going without letting her quit.”

Lahey says her biggest piece of advice for parents is to move away from any focus on the end results, namely grades and test scores.

Let your kids make up their short-term goals, she suggests, which could include everything from making more friends at school to cleaning their room seven days in a row to making the roller derby team.

“If … they don’t achieve them, that’s OK, yes, they failed at something. They failed to achieve their goals, but what are the consequences? It’s nothing.”

Make the Most of Your Teacher Conference

Advance planning means your teacher conference will be productive and pleasant.

Peggy Coppola of Dix Hills, New York, learned an important lesson when she showed up late — and unprepared — for her first parent teacher conference with her son’s kindergarten teacher. “She told me things I didn’t expect.”

Coppola says she felt like “a deer in headlights” when she discovered Johnmarco wasn’t performing well on tests and was staring at the ceiling when he was asked questions. “I walked out kicking myself,” says Coppola. “I should have asked how I could help, whether his behavior was normal for his age, or what the school could do. If I had stopped and thought ahead of time, I would have been prepared.”

This year, when 10-year-old Johnmarco entered 5th grade, Coppola made sure she was ready for that first teacher conference. Together, she and her son reviewed test scores and discussed what was going on in his classroom. Then, Coppola says, she felt she could “anticipate what the teacher would say.”

While we expect teachers to prepare for these meetings, parents don’t always take the time to do the same. That’s unfortunate, since the parent-teacher conference is often one of the only opportunities parents get to meet with their child’s teacher one-on-one. “You gain the perspective of a trained professional who spends an enormous amount of time with your child,” says Gracemarie Rozea, New York State region director for the Parent Teacher Association (PTA). “The teacher has the opportunity to see your child interacting with other children, and is a more objective evaluator of your child than you as a parent might be.”

That’s important whether your child is just starting out in elementary school or on her way to high school. “Ninth grade is a critical time because it’s the foundation of the high school career,” says Doris Ekert, a former high school English teacher from Massapequa, New York. “Having a notice come home isn’t enough contact. This is the time to talk about your child.”

Too often, parents come to the meeting expecting the discussion to revolve around their child’s test scores, Ekert says. “They’re important, but parents need to look at the big picture. We have to bring up kids who aren’t just smart. Think about the human being you’re raising. It’s the whole child that needs to be addressed.” (If you find your child’s teacher is the one focusing too much on grades and academics, try some of the questions in the sidebar, recommended by Ekert.)

Teachers Want Your Input

Teachers are just as interested in your input as you are in theirs. “There are many things about your child the teacher doesn’t know,” Rozea says. Teachers want to be apprised of any changes your child is facing in his personal or family life, and how he behaves at home in comparison to how he acts at school. Your child’s comfort level in the classroom, whether he’s found his niche among fellow students, and whether he seems stressed or happy are all important clues to his social and emotional well-being — and it’s only by working together that you and your child’s teacher can fully understand them.

“Social problems used to start in middle school, but now they’re rearing their heads as young as 3rd grade, and this impacts academic performance,” says Margaret Sagarese, author of The Rollercoaster Years.

With so much to talk about in so little time, here’s how you can make the most of your meeting:

Before the Teacher Conference

  • Start preparing early. Don’t wait until the night before to get organized. Create a folder at the beginning of the year in which you store test scores, big homework assignments, and your notes (about things your child has told you or any other topics you want to address).
  • Talk to your child. Ask how she’s doing in class, what’s going on during lunchtime, recess, and when she goes to special classes like music or gym. “You want to find out both the positive and negative,” says Rozea. If you don’t like what you’re hearing, investigate. Talk to other parents to see if their children are expressing similar concerns. “You need to find out whether your child is perceiving everything accurately or if she’s misunderstanding a situation,” she says.

During the Teacher Conference

  • Arrive early. With only a few precious minutes to spend, you don’t want to be late. It will shorten your time with your child’s teacher and affect her day’s entire schedule.
  • Enter with the right attitude. The goal of both the teacher and the parent should be the success of the student, but sometimes parents have a hard time discussing tough issues. Rather than put the teacher on the defensive, arrive with a compliment to start the conference off on the right foot. (“My son is really enjoying the unit on space” or “We had a great time on the field trip.”) Then address any concerns in a respectful way.
  • Find out the communication protocol. Don’t let this be the only time you talk to your child’s teacher. Ask how she likes to communicate, suggests Sagarese, whether it’s by e-mail, notes passed through a folder, or phone calls. “Reinforce that you are there if she wants to talk to you,” she says. “Let the teacher know you want to be that kind of partner.”

After the Teacher Conference

  • Follow up. If the teacher brings something to your attention that needs to be addressed with your child, take steps to put the plan in motion, whether it’s helping with organizational skills, getting extra help, or addressing a social issue.
  • Update your child. Start with the positive things her teacher had to say, then fill her in on any concerns you and the teacher discussed. Explain how you can all work together to ensure your child has a successful year.

4 Ways to Prevent Your Kid From Becoming A Tech Addict

The Huffington Post


A few months ago, I was leading my therapy group for struggling college students; young people who feel socially isolated and alone. Some have dropped out of school, some white knuckled their way through only to graduate and half-heartedly look for work while living with their over-accommodating parents.

While struggling to help them relate to each other, one young man became enraged at me.

“You don’t understand! You just don’t get it! This ’emotional education’ thing that you keep talking about, I never learned to do that. My computer was my babysitter, my friend, my playmate – I don’t know how to relate. I never learned how.”

It was a moment of heartbreaking clarity. Technology without supervision is not healthy for any young person. When staring into a glowing screen replaces meaningful communication in a child’s life, he or she will suffer mightily with intimacy in the future.

Welcome to “Generation Screen”

Can you believe that there was a time when people didn’t spend hours of their day staring into glowing screens? Phones never left the house, television put itself to sleep at night, and computers were just fancy typewriters. Technology didn’t come with you to the playground, school or on a family vacation.

Sure, this talk makes me sound like a geezer, but everywhere you look, children are staring into cell phones screens, computer screens, tablets, ipads, etc. Probably by the time you finish reading this article, someone will have invented a new glowing screen for children to stare into.
The real question is this: has technology improved our kids attunement and empathy with others or is it adding to their self-absorption and isolation?

Tuned-in and Out of Touch

Never before in history have kids had instant access to so much information. With endless data at their fingertips, kids can breeze through entire libraries with their thumbs, and even view earth from space. A tap or a click can deliver facts and statistics that would have taken hours to find in a library or books.

While technology has expanded our knowledge of the world, advanced education and provided for medical breakthroughs, it is quickly becoming a number one source of conflict between parents and their children at home.

Technology and Temperament

Some kids don’t fuss over technology. These kids tend to lead full lives filled with hobbies and numerous activities such as school clubs, social events, sports teams, band or music practice. To them, technology is just another pastime.

For other kids, technology devours their lives. They can’t put down or turn it off. These kids tend to be more isolated and anxious, have poor people skills, difficulty maintaining friendships or an unstable sense of self. For them, technology is just another way to avoid a frustrating world; a world that they have difficulty handling. By placing a glowing screen in front of their face, they can shut out contact and communication. Sadly, the more connected they feel to technology, the less connected they feel to the people around them.

For example, the best summer camps don’t allow any technology. That’s because they know that the more connected kids are to technology, the less connected they will be to each other.

If technology becomes your kid’s primary activity, if your kid spends hours a day gaming or surfing the net instead of hanging out with friends or participating in school activities, be warned: you may have a budding tech addict in your home.

Tech Addiction

Many kids who visit my office spend unlimited hours each day tied to some form of technology, such as a cell phone, a tablet, or portable gaming device. They can’t travel without it or put it down without a fight. In this way, technology starts to look a lot like addiction.

Like any addiction, as dependency increases, personal functioning decreases. Kids become more impulsive, moody, and less empathic. As their hunger for more tech time grows, clashes with parents increase.

Tech addicted kids are more likely to suffer:
• Social isolation
• Poor social skills
• Unstable moods
• Impulse problems
• Sleep disorders
• Low self-esteem

The biggest problem with technology is simple: it doesn’t turn itself off. Setting limits on unhealthy behaviors is a crucial part of good parenting. Taking the role of “guardian of technology” may make you unpopular with your kid, but it is key to preventing tech addiction tendencies.

Tech Rules

Here are some basic recommendations for parents who have a child obsessed with technology. Of course, every kid is different; what works for one child, may be a disaster for another. Consider this list a jumping off point for discussion. But be warned, the more dependent your kid becomes on technology, the more difficult it will be to wean him or her off it.

1. Tech Blackouts
Set aside specific times at home when no one (parents included) uses technology. Cell phones, computers, ipads…everything is off. If you want your kid to be less tech addicted, you must lead the way. Tech-free time can be spent reading, talking, playing games, cooking, making art…anything creative or social will do.

2. Tech Hours
Kids resist structure — but fall apart without it. Technology needs limits. For instance, I often recommend that families establish tech hours; time for homework, gaming or surfing the Internet. Scheduling tech time will help to limit battles by setting clear guidelines. For instance, when it comes to gaming, many parents may allow thirty minutes a day during the school week and two hours a day on the weekends.

3. Tech Spaces
When possible, keep all technology in a common space like the living room — not in a child’s bedroom. Establish communal places for tech time; try to avoid allowing your kid to disappear for hours behind a closed door.

4. Tech Limits
There are plenty of on-line services that can filter out inappropriate or violent material. These services can also limit Internet access by scheduling times that Internet is available and times when it is not. One example of such a service is Net Nanny.

Stop Tech Addiction Before it Starts

The bottom line: parents must control technology or risk technology controlling their kids. Even starting a dialogue with your kid about the effects of over-dependence on technology is a step in the right direction. Find the right balance for technology use in your home and eliminate tech addiction in your kid’s future.