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Friday, December 17, 2010

Helping with homework, or letting your child fail?

In my very first year of teaching music to teenagers, I set an assignment for my Year 7s which required them to make a very simple musical instrument, based on what they'd learnt in class.

On the due date all sorts of wonderful and complex creations appeared on my desk, the vast majority obviously made by parents. Children are generally very honest and at that age have little clue about the true purpose of homework, only really understanding that they'll be in trouble if they don't do it. Most confessed straight up that it wasn't their own work.

I wonder if some parents just thought the project looked like fun and let their vanity take over. (Sorry, but your child's teacher is NOT interested in how well you can do the work. Butt out.) No doubt a few were actively trying to boost their child's grades or give me a false impression of their child's ability. But I'm quite sure that most were trying to be helpful.

I felt a bit sorry for the children whose parents 'helped' them, but not because I failed them after they were unable to explain their concept and process to me. It could have been a voyage of discovery; it could have started as a drag and become fun along the way, or it could have created seemingly insoluble problems which caused them to come to me with interesting questions and find out even more. Instead, these children were 'rescued' from the chance to learn anything at all by their well-meaning parents.

There was still one important lesson available to them from this experience. They had a chance to learn that when they don't take responsibility, mum or dad will bail them out. Do you think that's a good lesson for a 12-year-old to learn?

No, neither do I, which is why I took a hard line and failed some wonderful creations. Sadly I couldn't do anything about them learning that mum and dad think it's okay to cheat.

What happens if you keep taking ownership of your children's work responsibilities?

Let me tell you about a girl I know. This girl isn't really a girl; she's a young woman. She's over 20 years old, and she's married. I think of her as a girl because she has a severe case of arrested socio-emotional development, largely because her mother still will not let her fail.

When she's sick and can't come to work, her mother rings up for her. (I'll say it again: she's in her 20s, and married.) Even when she screws something up- for example accidentally arranges an appointment while she's meant to be working- her mother rings up for her and says she's sick.

When the slightest thing goes against her during the day at work, she immediately bursts into tears or goes sullen and silent, then pretends to need to go to the bathroom- where she rings her mother, who then calls her back at half hour intervals to see if she's okay.

When she dislikes workplace decisions such as having her shift changed, instead of saying no to the boss (which is her right) she wails about how unfair it is to others, and takes a sickie on the day of the change. (The rest of the staff are able to predict her absences with frightening accuracy.)

If her work isn't done or she makes a mistake, she tells as many lies as needed to avoid taking responsibility, suddenly develops a crippling headache or nausea and then takes sickies until she figures everyone has forgotten what happened.

Okay, so that's an extreme case, but I'm sure you see where I'm heading. This is a person whose parent has gone in to bat for her so many times that she is unable to take responsibility for even the most routine uncomfortable moments in normal life, to the point of being a practised liar and hypochondriac. I wonder where all that started? What do you think happened when this young lady was at school and had homework due?

The message is loud and clear, and I've never known an educator to disagree. If you don't want your child to end up spineless and irresponsible, DON'T do their homework for them, no matter how late they've left it and how hard they plead and how many marks the assignment is worth towards their final exams. Don't write their essays. Don't do their maths problems. Don't complete their practical projects.

If your child has a genuine issue, encourage them to talk to the teacher rather than doing the work for them. Otherwise, stand back and wait for the crash- and then be there to help them look honestly at what's happened, nudge them in the direction of making amends if they can, and pick up the pieces if they can't.
Letting them fail doesn't mean you don't love them. It means you're letting them grow, emotionally and socially, and that means you DO love them. You're letting them make their own bad decisions about what's important, stand by those decisions in the face of opposition (from you and the teacher), and then experience the consequences of their choices. They are NOT an extension of you. They are unique and separate, and they need to take ownership of their own bad decisions. Children need to learn how to take responsibility, they need to learn how to fail, and they need to understand consequence. Where are they going to learn that, if not from you and their teachers? Do you want them to learn it from their employer, their life partner or the police?

Okay, I can hear you screaming 'But- but- but- they get so much homework! They'll never get it done without some help!' Do you know, if every parent stopped over-helping with homework that was intended for the child to do alone, THE SKY WOULD NOT FALL, HENNY PENNY, and teachers might even start to realise that if every secondary teacher sets an hour's work for every child every night, they should all put their heads down the toilet and flush hard, because that's ridiculous. These sorts of things are only discovered when there's a revolution of honesty.

I'm hoping I'm not hearing anyone screaming 'But they won't get into (fill in course name) if they fail this assessment!' I'm sorry, but I don't want to be treated by a doctor or defended by a lawyer whose parent did their work. This sort of parent needs to take a long hard look in the mirror, because they are putting their own ambitions ahead of their child's welfare. Any child who gets into uni on the back of someone else's work will hit the wall very hard, and sooner rather than later.

YES, defend your child against ludicrous workloads (but be sure of your facts). Go in to bat for them if the maths teacher, for example, is setting endless hours of exercises every night, to the point where that's the only exercise your child ever does, and being punitive if it's not done. But if your child hasn't done their work because they've been gaming online, or reading Harry Potter, or staring at the ceiling, LET THEM FAIL. They may whine, scream, do Hamlet impersonations or lie whimpering in a corner, but eventually (possibly at 3am on the day the assignment is due) they may even start work. Or maybe they'll do it next time, after they've copped a well-deserved zero on the chin. It's their zero, they own it completely, and it's infinitely more valuable to them than your A+.

Obviously I'm not talking about listening to your child read aloud, or helping them to understand what a question is asking, or suggesting ways of Googling appropriate information, or demonstrating a construction technique. There are many ways you can help your child with their work without actually doing it for them.

How can you tell them you're not helping any more, if that's what you've been doing so far? Tell the truth, but lovingly. 'It's not my homework, it's your homework. How about you start, and I'll bring you a cup of (fill in name of favourite warm beverage) in half an hour?' AND WALK AWAY. 

Come back in half an hour whether they've started or not, with that cup of whatever and some more gentle encouragement. If they don't start, don't push it. It's not worth an argument; just tell them you're going to let them find out for themselves what happens if the work isn't done, give them a kiss and go to bed. 

It's their decision to fail, not yours, and it doesn't mean you don't love them. LET GO.


  1. I think I learned most of the most important skills I have from *not* doing my homework (nor having it done for me).

    From learning abstract strategy from the games I was playing, to realising how to manipulate and undermine authority until it does what *you* want, not what *it* wants; from teaching me to argue more effectively (invaluable analytical skills) to teaching me to take responsibility for what I did and did not want to learn, refusing to do homework was invaluable to my personal and academic development.

    Perhaps this was not what you meant, but I maintain that if my homework had been done for me I would never have learnt many of the skills that came with not doing homework.

  2. This was exactly what I meant!!!

    Bashing one's head against a brick wall to try to make another human (albeit a small one) do something they have no intention of doing is only marginally less pointless than actually doing the work for them. My personal experience of this situation leads me to advise parents to maintain their distance and let the small human choose.

  3. My son was in fourth grade last year. This is the year "real" homework starts. He had homework almost every night.
    I provided the appropriate space and time to complete homework. I was there to help if needed. He usually understood it. I helped him line up his math problems and made him write a little neater.
    The problem we had was he was so excited to get out of school he'd forget his books for homework. I went back to the school a few times with him. Finally I began making him call a friend himself, going into school early, or having to stay in for recess to finish.
    Enabling, doing a child's work, or thinking for a child will only hold a child back.
    Yes, parents should support their kids when necessary. We have to know when to pull back and to make our children confident and let them succeed or fail. It's better for children to learn about failure and improving an attitude or work ethic young. A parent who does too much for a child is not teaching a child the value of hard work and success.
    Good post! Thanks for sharing it at We Teach.

  4. Responsibility begins with simple tasks when they are very young. It's so much easier to put the socks on a three year old when you're in a hurry.... but the rubber meets the road when children learn their real skills and gain independence -- from the very beginning by being held responsible for the tasks that belong to them.

    I'm another pop thru from WeTeach.

  5. I tell my daughter to do her homework. She spends time on it every day after school. I'm honest about it. I tell her the homework itself probably doesn't matter all that much, but as she moves through school it's important that she sets aside time to do it, because there will be more and more and it will count for more and more of her grade. I tell her that I didn't do my homework, and I failed a lot of classes that I could have passed. It's never seemed like too much for her, she spends an hour a day on it at most.

    I learned pretty early that all I had to do to get out of doing my homework was lie. My mom told me that I couldn't go to Girl Scouts with my friends after school if I didn't finish my homework at school before it let out. This was impossible; i was doing classwork at school, and there was too much to finish during recess. I immediately recognized that my mom was being manipulative; joining the Girl Scouts was my father's idea (they were divorced) and if I went, she either had to come pick me up afterward instead of me riding the bus, or deal with him picking me up and dropping me off at her house. Instead of saying no, she put this impossible condition on me. So I lied, and nobody bothered to check up on it because, as I'd known, it wasn't really about the homework at all.

    Shortly after our 2nd daughter was born, our first stopped doing her homework, and she lied about it. We didn't know until her next report card. I was upset that her teacher hadn't said anything, but it made me communicate with her teacher more proactively from then on, which was a good thing. I knew it wasn't about the homework; it was about our new family dynamic. Her father had been spending some time with her on the weekends, but she needed me. So I made some time every day to do something with her that she wanted to do, while my husband or mother took care of the baby.

    1. You sound like you're handling this really well- good on you! There's a big difference between doing your child's homework for them, and encouraging them to understand the importance and impact of certain tasks. And well done for realising the hidden agenda and dealing with it so proactively.


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