I knew I was in trouble as I watched my 9-year-old daughter at the kitchen table, her head bent over complicated math worksheets. Outside, it was a gorgeous, sunny afternoon. But inside, the mood was overcast and cloudy. The only sound that broke the silence was the resentful scratch of a pencil–until my daughter suddenly hooked up to emit a tragic sigh.
Homework that frustrates a child is pure torture for a parent. But what to do? You may worry that an assignment is too tough or that there’s too much of it. At the same time, you want to make sure your child is keeping up in class and learning what she needs to get ahead. Here, from teachers, psychologists, and other experts, the answers to common questions that will help you help your child.
Q. How much homework should my child be doing?
A. First, don’t get caught in the trap of thinking that because a friend’s child gets more homework, that child is getting a better education. “The amount of work is less significant than the task itself,” says George Burns, head of the middle school at the Bank Street School for Children in New York City.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, children should spend anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours on homework, depending on their ages. But the reality can be much more, or less, depending on your school’s policy. If you’re concerned that your child spends too much time on homework, is consistently unable to complete her work without assistance, or shows signs of reluctance or frustration, make an appointment to talk to her teacher. She may be having similar problems in class. If so, ask whether you should consider hiring a tutor or find other outside help (see “When to Hire a Tutor” page 182).
Q. How can I blame my daughter for fighting homework? Her assignments seem incredibly boring.
A. Every parent has seen homework assignments that are tedious or repetitive, as well as those that fail to connect what children are learning to the world around them. “The best homework helps a child to apply a concept rather than perform a lot of rote drills,” says Caroline Butler, an education commissioner for the National Parent Teacher Association. “That means the child has to think about how this lesson connects with real life.”
If you’re unhappy with the nature of the homework you see, talk to your child’s teacher–but approach her as a partner at first. “Chances are the teacher is someone who wants your child to succeed as much as you do, and if you’re confrontational, then you’ve created another problem rather than solving the original one,” says Butler.
If possible, go to the meeting armed with a list of homework assignments from the teacher that were good. Tell her how much your child enjoyed doing those, and then ask for help in making others more interesting. I used this approach when my daughter was in first grade and bogged down by page after page of addition review. Her teacher sent me home with a bag full of “magic” dried beans to use as counting aids. My daughter was thrilled that her teacher singled her out for this honor; she kept the beans on a special shelf and took them out every day.
Q. What if the teacher isn’t so accommodating?
A. Consider whether you have the time and skills to turn bad homework into good homework on your own. For instance, if the assignment is to look up five facts about dirt in a workbook and write them down, try taking the assignment outside. Hand a trowel to your child and tell her to dig. She can write down her own observations and even collect a spoonful of dirt to illustrate her findings.
If you don’t feel you can improve assignments and the teacher is unresponsive, make an appointment to talk to the principal and school guidance counselor.
Q. How much assistance should I actually contribute?
A. Obviously, you should never do an assignment for your child. But numerous studies show that the best students are those whose parents take an active role in helping with homework. “When the parent is there in a supportive role, acting as a guide, it empowers the child,” says Corinne Rupert, Ph.D., a Laguna Beach, CA, psychologist with a specialty in child development. Even so, be careful how you go about it. Most educators say helping your child rework incorrect math problems is a good idea. But insisting that she rewrite a book report is a more subjective call. What’s more, too much criticism may make your child feel she can’t do anything right. As you discuss the work, be generous with praise. Take note of any thorny problems that your child worked through–and tell her you’re proud of her for learning something new.
Q. Between my sixth grader and my first grader, it seems I’m always on homework duty. Shouldn’t my older child be doing more on his own?
A. There are no hard-and-fast roles, but it’s important to encourage independence as children get older. “All parents need to pull away,” says Burns. “Homework is one of the ways children learn to figure things out by themselves.”
Q. I’m embarrassed to admit that sometimes I don’t know the answers to my older child’s homework drills. What can I do to help her?
A. Look for the answers with her, checking reference books you have on hand or those in the local library. If there’s a particular subject you really can’t handle–math or writing, for instance–ask your spouse or a friend to help.
If you have access to a computer, it’s even simpler to get answers. Online homework help is available for students of all ages. Children younger than junior-high-school-age may need a parent to navigate the World Wide Web with them and search for appropriate help sites.