If Mom Does My Homework, What Do I Learn?
Dr. Olaf Jorgenson
Posted May 5, 2011
In some parts of the Bay Area, students and schools are at a disadvantage because parents aren’t involved enough in the lives of their children.
To the contrary, in Almaden and surrounding communities, parents tend to be very committed to supporting their children’s education, so much so that the opposite problem is not uncommon in our schools: parental overinvolvement. One common symptom of this is when moms (and dads) become too hands-on with homework and projects.
It’s important to acknowledge that “overparenting” results from good intentions: we want what’s best for our children, and we recognize the importance of education. Ironically, though, our efforts to provide support and encouragement in the short term can threaten our children’s progress and development in the long run when our involvement crosses into micromanagement.
To begin with, consider what the child isn’t learning when a parent takes over. The point of homework and projects is for students to practice skills, reinforce concepts, conduct research, shape work habits, and so forth. When parents do the work, they nullify skill development for their children.
Another perhaps more serious concern is what children do learn when they observe their parents stepping in to help. The messages are that mom and dad will rescue them when the going gets tough, or that they aren’t capable of doing their own work, or that their best work is “not good enough.” Clearly, none of these are the messages we want to send; and all of them impair a child’s resilience — the critical ability to overcome adversity later in life — widely recognized by child development experts as a missing vital attribute in young people with overinvolved parents.
Across two decades working in schools, and as a parent, I’ve observed three basic reasons that caring, competent parents become overinvolved in schoolwork.
First, we all want to help our children when they struggle. We know that families lead busy lives today; studies document that schools are assigning more work than ever before, so when we see our children appearing overstressed and short on time, we feel the natural urge to step in and assist.
There’s a fine line when homework support becomes indulgence; in any case, when your child is overwhelmed by homework, it’s best to contact a school representative and talk about it. If you’ve had a difficult night and excused your child from doing homework, then explain your circumstances to your child’s teacher. If you ask for an accommodation to preserve your child’s precious sleep time, most teachers will consider your request if it doesn’t happen too often.
Often the parent’s motivation stems from their child’s poor time management, leaving projects until the last minute and — rather than letting natural consequences take hold — parents jump in to the rescue. There are many time-management strategies parents can introduce to help children balance priorities and make time for play, family, rest, and homework. Contact your school or conduct your own research for ideas that will fit your child’s personality and your family’s dynamics.
A third and more problematic reason for overinvolvement is parental competition. Competitive parents may be driven to ensure their children earn top grades on schoolwork. They micromanage major assignments like science fair projects, resulting in outcomes that far exceed a child’s ability (and unfortunately, often earning high marks from teachers). Some parents have difficulty accepting that mistakes and a degree of messiness are normal and developmentally appropriate signatures of genuine student efforts. Others simply insist that the work their child submits be recognized as the best in class, as a reflection of their parenting, or a manifestation of their own competitiveness. More parents are then caught up in the pressure to keep up with their overinvolved peers.
Unfortunately, competitive motives like these may be more common than we’d like to admit — and clearly are not aimed at optimizing child development.
Savvy schools and teachers preempt parental micromanagement by requiring students to complete projects in class, or by asking parents to sign a pledge promising to limit their involvement in specific terms. These and other strategies are effective to some degree, although overinvolved parents are rarely redirected without a clear, compelling reason to change their behaviors.
But if they don’t, they join a growing trend toward overparenting; yesterday’s “helicopter parents” who hovered over children and schools have given way to today’s “snowplow parents,” blasting obstacles out of their children’s way and giving rise to a generation of helpless children who will lack resilience and struggle to overcome adversity. Ultimately, when moms (and dads) do the homework, it’s our children who lose points in the long run.
Ole Jorgenson is Head of School at Almaden Country School.
Published in Almaden Times Weekly on April 22, 2011.