When the other moms asked me to come help the boys complete their group project for fourth grade English, I thought I would be there in a supporting role—brainstorming ideas, double checking grammar, and maybe handling the hot glue gun. Instead I walked into the house to find the mothers hunched over the poster board while the boys played. In another room. Upstairs. As the “work session” wore on (with the kids making an appearance every once in a while), it dawned on me that I wasn’t there to help facilitate. I was actually expected do my son’s share of the work.
My first instinct was to admonish these mothers, grab all three boys by the collars, and sit them down around the table to make them work. But situations like this can be tricky. My son is new at this school, and the other kids are his friends… Besides that, admonishing people in their own house and bossing their kids around when you’ve just met them is generally considered bad manners. After 20 minutes of this internal debate, I opted against the finger-wagging, and attempted to lead by example instead.
I dropped the glue stick once and for all, called my son down, and insisted he work on his own project.
Unfortunately, my example did not impress. In fact, it might have even been seen as a small act of mutiny. So, the mothers pressed on, spurred by an impending deadline, a strong desire for their children to get a good grade, and what I’m now sure is a whole lot of love too.
Why Do Parents “Over-Help”?
My experience around my son’s group project left me with a lot of questions. First of all, schools are always encouraging parental involvement, so where exactly is the line between “helping” and “doing”? When does it cross over from “over-helping” to straight up “cheating”? Moreover, what is it that makes perfectly wonderful, well-meaning, smart parents think that it’s okay to blur these lines?
Reasons Parents Over-Help
- They want to give their child self-esteem.
- They want their child to get good grades or win.
- They want to show their child how to do a good job.
- They don’t want their child to struggle or become frustrated
- They want their child to complete the project more quickly.
As you can see, all the above reasons can stem from loving your child. But the reality is over-helping won’t accomplish any of the things parents want it to.
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What the Research Shows
There’s a ton of research out there that shows that parents who exercise too much control with schoolwork can actually make their kids less interested and less proficient in what they’re doing. One such study had third graders work with their parents on a project that resembled homework, after which the kids were asked to perform the same task on their own. The kids whose parents were more controlling didn’t do as well when left on their own. Wendy Grolnick, the researcher who conducted this study summarized her findings with this and other similar studies:
“Controlling parenting has been associated with lower levels of intrinsic motivation, less internalization of values and morals, poorer self-regulation…These issues relate not only to children’s development and well-being but also to their success as happy, functioning adults during the course of their lives.”
When it comes to schoolwork, a parent who takes the pencil out of a child’s hand to do it for them is essentially taking control out of a child’s hand—and that can have a very negative impact on that child.
Doing Too Much for Kids Robs Them of Self-Esteem, a Sense of Accomplishment, and Numerous Life Lessons
Parenting expert Jeff Everage had some powerful words about this subject. “When you do everything for your kids, you’re actually producing low self-esteem,” he said. “What you’re telling them is, ‘I don’t believe you can do it yourself, and that’s why I have to do it for you.’” Chew on that for a while. It’s a doozie.
Many parents are also under the impression that pride comes from high marks or trophies, when the pride should come from knowing how much work you put into earning that A or winning that award.
Everage points out that Olympic athletes are not competing for the prize of a medal. “I believe these champions are doing it out of passion and a commitment to excellence and being the best they can be,” says Everage. “The medals then become a symbol of their commitment and not the reward.”
When you do the work for your child, you rob them of that sense of accomplishment! You also rob them of all the life lessons that go along with it:
- If I work hard, I can achieve my goals.
- It feels really good to look back at something and say, I did that.
- I am smart enough to figure this out for myself.
- This might be hard, but now I know what to do next time.
- Sometimes it takes a while to do a good job.
- I may not have succeeded this time, but I am resilient enough to pick myself up and try again.
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Whose Homework Is It, Anyway?
It really seems like a counter-intuitive thing, when all you read or hear about is that the trouble with schooling today is lack of parental involvement. Well-meaning parents everywhere are asking, how much help is too much help?
It’s useful to think about what education means. The root of the word “education” means “to draw forth.” As a parent, what can you do to draw forth knowledge (instead of spoonfeeding answers and doing the work)? Well, you can provide the materials for the project or homework. You can ensure that there is a quiet place and blocks of uninterrupted time in which the work can be done. You can serve as a sounding board for ideas. And when in doubt, the best way to draw forth is to ask a lot of questions. You might be surprised at what your kids already know and what they can do.
Just like with anything good to eat or fun to do, moderation is key when it comes to parental involvement in your child’s school work. The number one rule, according to parenting expert Susie Walton is, “Don’t do for your children what they can do for themselves!”
In his book Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason, Alfie Kohn cautions parents, “Kids are less likely to succeed on a range of measure of classroom achievement if their parents don’t give them much opportunity to make decisions or to feel a sense of self-determination.”
We all want to give our children every educational opportunity out there. We can start by letting them do their own homework and completing their own projects.
by Pamela Layug Laney
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