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Increasing competitiveness and assignment overload are causing some parents to do their children’s homework for them. This is one of the biggest long-term mistakes a parent can make when it comes to a child’s educational development, says Ladies’ Home Journal editor-in-chief Diane Salvatore, who was invited on the "Today" show to share advice about what truly helps kids and what doesn’t. Read her tips below.

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HOMEWORK DO’S AND DON’TS:

DON’T: Tell your child the answers. This sends the message that someone will bail him out when faced with a challenge.

DO: Help your child get started on tasks and brainstorm ideas for projects. Ask what topics are of interest to him.

DON’T: Let your kid watch TV, take phone calls or make pit stops at the refrigerator during homework time.

DO: Provide your child with a space in the house that is clean, well lit and set aside especially for doing homework.

DON’T: nag or bully your child into getting homework done. Pestering most often breeds resentment, not motivation.

DO: praise your child. Educators say that effort is more important than success. Be sure to applaud small milestones.

DON’T: Bribe your child to do homework by offering money or gifts. This teaches kids to work only for compensation.

DO: Acknowledge homework that is well done, but instead of gifts, let her pick an activity, such as a trip to the zoo.

WHEN DO YOU FIND MOST PARENTS DOING THE HOMEWORK FOR THEIR KIDS, WHEN KIDS ARE YOUNGER OR OLDER?
According to the student achievement department at the NEA (National Education Association), a Public Agenda organization survey shows that one out of five parents admit to doing their kids’ homework themselves. There’s a slight difference between elementary, middle school and high school parents.

Elementary is slightly less, and Public Agenda speculates that this is because kids homework in elementary school is easier and those kids are less likely to throw their hands in frustration.

WHAT ARE THE RAMIFICATIONS? ISN’T THIS BAD?
Yes, it’s bad. One of the great benefits of homework is to keep parents engaged in what kids are doing. Knowing that your kids have homework and what the expectations of the teachers are on that homework is important. As kids get older you may not know every piece of homework they do, but you should have some sense of teachers’ expectations for your students work. However, parents are not supposed to do kids homework. Being engaged in it vs. doing it are two different things. Just because you’re involved doesn’t mean you should do your kids’ work for them.

The ramifications:

  1. One of the goals of homework is to practice something raised in class. If you do their work for them they don’t get this opportunity.
  2. Another goal of homework is to offer kids a chance to work independently, which is something they need to learn how to do. Homework teaches an independent learning style. For example, a long-term science fair project that your kid is supposed to work on over a couple of months involves taking a problem, taking it apart and accomplishing a goal. If a parent jumps in on the last night and does it, the child lost all the opportunity for planning and independent work that teachers were hoping to achieve. Being able to do homework at home is a way for kids to be alone with their work and be self motivated — two things they can’t learn in school.
  3. As parents you try to teach kids a sense of responsibility and when you rescue them by doing their work for them, especially if they left it for the last minute and now won’t complete it in time, you rob them of the lesson of responsibility. They’re at risk for not learning that there are natural consequences for not meeting expectations (for example: not getting a good grade or getting in trouble with the teacher). You need to learn these skills for work and relationships later in life. Rescuing kids on a regular basis is not a good idea.

Many teachers and schools have different standards: Some say credit your parents, some take points off, etc. So it is critical for parents to talk to their teacher and/or school principal and find out what the policy/position is on this point so you know what to do.

SHOULD A SCHOOL HAVE ONE POLICY THROUGHOUT — OR IS IT A FREE FOR ALL WHERE EACH TEACHER CAN MAKE HER OWN RULES?
Absolutely. Talk to the school about their procedures. A teacher may individualize it a little bit and there may be some differences, but most schools have a general understanding that parents don’t do kids’ homework and there are other ways for parents to be engaged. The principal and teachers together establish that code about how school handles homework.

IF A PARENT FEELS THAT A CHILD HAS TOO MUCH HOMEWORK, THEY MAY BE TEMPTED TO HELP. HOW ELSE CAN A PROBLEM LIKE THIS BE HANDLED?
Parents are often tempted to help if they perceive their kids have too much homework, but if you think your child has too much you should talk to the teacher to get an idea of what the schools sees as too much and often you will find there is some miscommunication between the student, teacher and parent about the amount of work.

IS THIS WORSE BECAUSE BOOMER PARENTS ARE SO COMPETITIVE AND CAN’T STAND TO SEE KIDS FAIL AND THEY’VE BEEN SUCH PUSHOVER PARENTS ALL ALONG?
There might be some truth to that, but it’s also the general environment we live in today. There’s so much pressure to succeed and pressure about high stakes standardized testing that almost all students go through now.

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL SAYS IT’S WIDELY ACKNOWLEDGED THAT KIDS TODAY HAVE MORE, AND MORE COMPLICATED HOMEWORK — BUT IT’S NOT SOURCED. TRUE?
Yes, that is pretty widely known. The reason: the entire curriculum is more demanding than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Our expectations are more focused, we know so much more about how kids learn, so there are more standards and everything is more demanding. This plays itself out in homework, too. Everything is at a higher level these days.

HOMEWORK HELP:
A lot of schools offer homework assistance. Sometimes it’s the school district itself that has a call in number for help that’s staffed by teachers. Some schools are doing that online.

It’s important to teach our kids to find resources and locate them instead of giving them the answers. It’s also important for students to get the experience of going to someone else other than the parent for help, like going to a teacher and other resources. Teaching them is going to help them master other skills faster. They need to learn to take responsibility for their own learning.

WHAT IF THE PARENT FINDS THEY CAN’T ANSWER THE HOMEWORK QUESTIONS HERSELF? HOW DO YOU HELP YOUR CHILD WITHOUT GIVING TOO MUCH HELP?
It’s crucial to handle each homework situation on a case-by-case basis. An essay writing assignment my 11-year-old niece just had was one on a family tree, that required research and writing and a big arts and crafts presentation of photos. In the other she had to use metaphors and similes and other “style” elements I don’t even remember. Basically she demanded examples of her mother and father and when they got stumped, they had her call her editor aunt and demand answers. What should we do besides saying, ‘No, do it yourself’? You know you’re not supposed to supply the answers for her. And yet it takes time to coach her to think it through. It was late. We all work. Everyone was tired. Who wants to be on the phone for an hour trying to get her to say: ‘The sun was like an embrace’?

If she didn’t learn it in class, shouldn’t she go in with homework that’s wrong and suffer the consequences, or get the attention of the teacher who clearly needs to do a better job teaching this concept?

The first thing that comes to mind, is we don’t know why this student doesn’t know the concept. You should talk to your child to find out the situation:

  1. Is it that the teacher didn’t teach it?
  2. Is it that the teacher taught it, but the kid wasn’t listening?
  3. Is it that the teacher taught it, but the kid couldn’t absorb it or understand it?
  4. Does the child understand it and is just seeking attention from family members and really does know the answers? This can be difficult to confirm, but you should always listen carefully to your kids and believe them.

After you’ve talked about the problem there are two scenarios:

  1. Hopefully, it’s not the night before this large project is due and you have time to help your child understand material. You should send your kid back to the teacher to clarify what the teacher accepts from the assignment: Should your student know this material already in the teacher’s eye or were they supposed to learn it on their own in the teacher’s eye? And then ask the teacher to reteach (or teach for the first time) metaphors or similes. Or you could ask the teacher for some advice on how to teach the concept to your child yourself.
  2. If it’s the last night parents have to use their best judgement on the best approach for each individual child based on knowing your own child. Obviously, such a big assignment shouldn’t have been left until so late in the evening on the last night. Whose fault is that? If it’s your child’s fault and this is a continuous problem, maybe it’s time to teach them a lesson by not rescuing them and giving them the answers. Was it your fault because you were stuck at work for the past three nights until late? It’s also possible that if it’s the last night and the kid has worked their butt off every single day for last week of well-planned work sessions and something they didn’t have control over happens, (you had work responsibilities, they got sick) then you don’t want to let them fail. You also have to weigh the consequences: Does an F on the similes and metaphors part of the project mean an F on a huge part of their grade? Or does it mean that they won’t get 10 extra credit points? Keep in perspective the critical pieces. Think about the big picture. For example, you can’t stay up all night with your child and send them exhausted to school.

Finally, whatever you decide you should follow up after the rough night is over or after they get their grades. The goal is to learn the material and if that didn’t happen during the project, then you should make sure it happens afterwards.

For a math assignment like trigonometry, you should work the problem out the same as above, but also something to think about, especially for math, is that sometimes the inability to do an assignment might be a sign of a bigger problem. There can be certain tasks that reflect certain topics and maybe your child missed a basic concept that they should have learned months or years ago that is causing the current problem. Sometimes kids who seem lazy or irresponsible really just don’t have the basic concepts down that then need to know to do an assignment. For example, some younger kids can’t learn phonics or understand what numbers mean. That could cause problems for the rest of their lives.

THE BOTTOM LINE:
Don’t make rash statements about “don’t ever do this for your child” or “always do that” or judge how anybody makes decisions with kids at a given moment.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

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