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Homework is Kids' Work

Parents, when it comes to homework, you may need to back off. Those may be harsh words to hear, but the truth is that homework is your child's assignment, not yours.

This is not to suggest that parents can't help their child when needed, but far too many parents believe their child's performance is a direct reflection on them, for better or worse. In fact, how a child handles the responsibility is a more accurate reflection of parental success.

"Sometimes parents interfere by being too caring and helpful," says Dr. Linda Ladd, chair of Family Sciences at Texas Woman's University. "If parents interfere with the healthy development of children, they do tremendous damage in what should happen naturally. Children need to learn study habits that will last a lifetime," she says.

Homework reinforces lessons taught in class and teaches children to set short-term goals. Children learn about rewards for achievement and consequences for not meeting goals. If a parent steps in too early or too often, the child simply learns to procrastinate until Mom or Dad takes over to prevent his failure. Parents must establish a "no excuses" policy. Accept only results (whatever is reasonable within the child's capability) and don't give in to manipulative behavior (which is learned) such as whining, stalling, or even tears.

Allow your child to experience both positive and negative consequences without feeling guilty yourself. Sometimes a parent will say, "I had to help. We had somewhere to be."

If you find yourself in this situation, Dr. Ladd says it is time to rethink your schedules. Life offers a wealth of good opportunities for children, but parents must limit activities according to the amount of time a child needs for homework. Observe your child carefully to know the proper balance. An elementary student may need a half-hour to get into homework, a half-hour to do it, and then another half-hour to phase out.

"Trouble develops when parents want something a child can't produce or when they think the child can't do it himself," says Dr. Ladd. Children think on a concrete level and may have different expectations for the assignment than parents have. Mainly, parents should help their child develop good study habits, and that happens when he is allowed to learn on his own.

"Groups of parents can create a competitive situation," says Dr. Anne Rambo, Associate Professor of Family Therapy at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. In elementary school, teachers expect a certain amount of parental involvement, although some parents carry this too far. The father of my daughter's friend once spent an entire weekend constructing a wooden booth for a special project. I wondered if he felt proud or foolish when the child next to his daughter displayed his wares on a plain card table.

Most teachers are open to discussing assignments so that all parents are on the same page and expectations for kids are realistic. Once this is accomplished, parents should move away from active participation in homework. "Parents are nervous about that," says Dr. Rambo, "because they view this as a competitive environment for themselves. But it's the child's life, and parents can't live their own desires through their child."

What is the parent's role?

The American Academy of Pediatrics says children are more successful in school when parents take an active interest in homework. Yet parents struggle to figure out how much help is appropriate, according to Dr. Joyce Epstein, Director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships and the National Network of Partnership Schools based in Maryland. Some do too little, and some do too much. It's okay to be supportive, but don't be impatient and jump in too quickly under the guise of helping.

"It's understandable to be confused and worried," says Dr. Rambo, "because it's a complicated issue." However, the bottom line according to Dr. Epstein is "Homework is always the student's responsibility."

Here are appropriate ways for parents to help their children deal with homework.

Be involved

Get to know your child's teacher, attend school events, volunteer if you can, but stay involved. Ask about homework policies and discuss with your child what she has learned in school each day. Consider an assignment book or planner for your child. It becomes a communication tool to help eliminate forgetfulness on the student's part and nagging from the parent's side.

Establish a homework routine

Make homework a priority in your family. Schedule a regular study time and place. This could be in the afternoon following a snack or later in the evening when family activities have slowed down, suggests KidsHealth.org. Just be consistent. Help your child find a well-lit place where distractions are minimal and where he can easily bring or store supplies. Turn off the television and computer to model how important quiet time is for productive study.

Be available

Early elementary children often benefit from the presence of a parent nearby. Consider this an opportunity to read the newspaper or a book. Seeing you involved in learning activities reinforces the importance of homework. "Resist the temptation to help when the child doesn't need or ask for it. Checking your child's work or guiding him through problem areas are okay," says Brandi Crouch, an elementary teacher in Alief, Texas. You can guide and make suggestions, but your child must do the thinking and learning himself in order to gain self-reliance and responsibility.

Praise his work

Recognize effort. The process is often more important than the product, so reward good habits. Praise responsible behavior, not just perfect marks on an assignment. When your child is successful, let your pride hang out. Post his spelling test or math quiz on the refrigerator. Frame his art project. Display awards received, and brag unmercifully to your friends and relatives.

Recognize potential problem areas

Dr. Rambo encourages parents to speak out if they believe more parental involvement is being assumed than your family can handle. "The U. S. Department of Education suggests 20 minutes of homework daily for grades one through six, so if your child is being assigned significantly more than this guideline on a regular basis or is given projects involving extensive research at the library every weekend, it may be time to speak up," Rambo says.

If homework is a constant struggle for your child, set up a conference with the teacher. Perhaps he is having trouble seeing the board or understanding directions. He may need evaluation for a learning problem and modifications in work requirements. Rather than criticizing his failures, advocate for your child and seek the best educational environment.

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