Why you shouldn't help your kids with their homework

Father helping daughter with homework

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By A. Pawlowski

It may feel tempting – proper even – to help your child with homework, but parents who get involved this way don’t improve their kids’ test scores or grades, and can hurt their academic achievement, two researchers have found.

“We need to do away with the assumption that anything parents do will help. That assumes that parents have all the answers, and parents do not have all the answers,” Angel L. Harris, one of the scholars, told TODAY Moms.

“Some of the things that they do may actually lead to declines in achievement – inadvertently, of course.”

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Harris, a professor of sociology and African and African-American studies at Duke, and Keith Robinson, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas, Austin, are the authors of the book “The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement With Children’s Education.”

They analyzed surveys of American families released in the last three decades by the U.S. Department of Education – surveys that followed the same families over time and collected information such as kids’ achievements, behaviors and their parents’ behaviors.

“We found that when parents from various racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups regularly helped their child with homework, in most cases, it made no difference for the child’s improvement in their test scores in reading, math, and their grades,” Robinson said.

“Regular help with homework… even compromised achievement in grades for white, black and non-Mexican Hispanic children.”

Could the findings simply reflect the fact that kids struggling with school ask for more homework help, thus making it look as though children who get more help do worse? No, Harris said, because the researchers measured the change in achievement among all kids, including those who performed well in school. The effect of parental homework involvement was the same across the board.

Since the surveys only provided information about how often parents helped with homework, not how they helped, Harris and Robinson can only speculate about the “why” part of the results. The basic message to parents is that being involved will not always result in better grades, Robinson said.

“Parents tend to take the reins of how they’re going to help with homework without consulting the child,” Robinson noted. “So maybe parents could ask kids, ‘Is what I’m doing helping you?’”

"It makes you rethink the assumption that helpers know what they’re doing, that they know how to help," Harris added.

Vicki Davis, a high school teacher at Westwood Schools in Camilla, Ga., said families who are over-involved in their children’s homework can enable helplessness. She’s seen her share of parents doing the assignments for their kids, especially writing papers, or taking charge of high-stakes, big projects.

Teacher Vicki Davis' daughter Susan finishes up her term paper. The high school senior stopped asking her mom for help with homework in second grade, Davis said.Today

“As a teacher, you recognize a student’s work. It’s like seeing somebody’s face every day and then all of a sudden, their face looks different,” Davis said.

“I don’t think most parents meant to do it. They just kind of start taking over.”

Davis expects elementary school students to get help from parents because they’re still learning study skills, and she doesn’t mind if older students talk “big picture” with their families about a project. 

But in general, parents should limit their involvement to making sure kids are completing their homework, she advised.

She finds the students who do best in school have parents who hold them accountable and regularly look at their grades. The goal is to create independent, lifelong learners, she said.

Kerry Lyons, a mother of five in Irvington, N.Y., said the research findings are a “huge relief.” Lyons works full time, so when she gets home, her kids – three kindergartners, one second-grader and one fourth-grader – are usually done with homework.

She estimates she helps twice a week, and then sits down with each child during the weekend to discuss what they worked on.

“I beat myself up sometimes because I’m surrounded by parents who are so focused on their kids and so focused on helping them with their school work and helping them succeed, and I simply don’t have the hours in the day to do that,” Lyons, 42, said.

“You worry about setting them up for the best possible start… (but) they’re going to be OK and they might even be better off.”

If helping with homework isn’t a good way for parents to be involved, Harris and Robinson found three ways that do help kids do better in school: Requesting a particular teacher for your child; expecting him or her to go to college, and discussing school activities with your child.

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