Judith Newman to Parents: Land the Helicopter

(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Judith Newman, writing in The New York Times, and drawing on research, offers an admonition for parents too involved in helping with homework:

Sociologists at the University of Texas at Austin and Duke University assessed the effect of more than 60 kinds of parental involvement on academic achievement. Read it and weep, helicopter parents: Across age, race, gender and socioeconomic status, most help had neither a positive or negative effect, and many kinds drove down a kid’s test scores and grades. One of the biggest culprits? Homework help.

Why is this help so counter-productive?

For one thing, most of us aren’t teachers; knowing a subject is not the same as being able to impart that knowledge to others, as anyone who’s ever found herself screaming, “Just take my word for it!” to a mystified 7-year-old knows. Second, when we don’t understand, we’re embarrassed. This may be particularly true of successful, competitive professionals. How many of us feel good telling our children, “I make enough money to buy a summer home in Tuscany, but please don’t ask me to explain Common Core math.”

“I think of myself as an intelligent, functioning adult,” says the writer Julie Klam, who has a daughter who just finished fifth grade. “But my God. Do you know what a ‘math lattice’ is? No, you do not. The way basic math is taught now, it’s not like A plus B equals C. It’s more like A plus B, and then you run out for oranges, and then you take the subway. My daughter’s recent assignment was like a buffet of confusion.”

Further complicating the homework is the increasing fashion for making it “creative” — which often renders it unnecessarily complicated, at least for the age and dexterity of many younger children. “I used to be very involved in my kids’ homework until my second grader came back with an assignment to recreate New York City’s waterways using a baking sheet, mounds of paper towels, tin foil and rivers of water poured from a pitcher,” says Marjorie Ingall, a Manhattan public school mother. “First of all, I don’t care about New York’s waterways as long as the water that comes out of the tap does not catch fire. But that aside — this is an assignment for me, not for an 8-year-old. There was just so much crying at my house.”

What, then, are (helicopter) parents to do? Read on to find out.

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Marie Rehbein
4 years 7 months ago
It's an amusing article. When my son was in kindergarten in Tucson, AZ, he was given homework that was supposed to be done with one of his parents because it was too difficult for a kindergarten child to do. All the time I was doing this homework, I was saying "I already graduated from school, so why are they giving me homework?". We had to draw a picture to go with the letter of the day, as I recall. When we got to the letter r, he wanted me to draw a roadrunner. I wasn't sure how a roadrunner looked, and as I was just about to suggest a different thing for the letter r, a roadrunner landed on my patio, it stayed until I finished sketching it, and then flew off. This is the only time in the lives of my four children that I did any homework.
Matt Emerson
4 years 7 months ago


Thanks for your comment. Your experience -- having to do homework with your child -- is not uncommon. It raises the question of what exactly school is for if, when students get home, they have essentially a repeat of the school day. 

This often carries on into high school, where students get two and three hours of homework a night, a scenario that has no real correlation to the working adult world. (When I was practicing law, I certainly worked many hours, but when I left the office at 6 or 7, or so, I didn't go home and do another two or three hours of work -- or if I did, it was rare.)


Marie Rehbein
4 years 7 months ago
We've experienced a variety of schools and homework policies over the years. The school in Tucson was a public school, but the Catholic schools we've experienced have been the most inclined to assign lots of homework. The impression I have is that this is intended to develop a work ethic rather than more insight into the subject matter. Our children went from Catholic middle schools to public high schools and did very well, in part because so many students in public high school do not do their homework while ours did, even though the public high schools were using a block schedule which made class periods long enough to allow them to finish their homework in class most of the time. It took me a while to get over the anxiety that my children were not doing their homework because they did not do it at home where I could see it being done. More recently, one of the teachers at my daughter's public high school experimented with having the students experience new material on their own as the homework in preparation for the next class where this material was then explained in more depth and they were given exercises to complete in class. Since my student was an A student no matter the type of class structure, I have no way of knowing if this was more effective than the more typical approach, but it seemed like an interesting approach.
Anne Chapman
4 years 6 months ago
I no longer have kids in school, but well remember the demands made by the (large, diocesan) high school on them as far as homework went. You reveal in another column (http://americamagazine.org/content/ignatian-educator/have-parents-outsourced-themselves-out-role) that you DO give homework to your students, and diagnosed a student's failing grades as being the result of the distractions in his environment in his home. However, do you ask yourself if the homework YOU give is an appropriate amount of work? How long should it take to complete? What do you hope will be accomplished by this homework? Should students ever have any down-time to watch TV or IM their friends? Every year the schools give "back to school" nights for parents. When "in" my son's French class, the teacher scolded the parents about not making sure their kids had enough sleep because she would catch them nodding off in class. This teacher routinely gave at least 1-1.5 hours of homework. My son was a top student, applying to the nation's most competitive universities. He took homework seriously and did not have the TV or any other distractions. Most students in high school are encouraged to do extra-curricular activities as well, and, for many, these activities are the "best" part of high school - sports, music, drama, student leadership, clubs etc. So most students would stay after school for these activities. They are also encouraged (and often required) to do volunteer community work. And some also hold down part-time jobs in order to either help the family financially or to earn money for the extras they want (movies are expensive these days) and which their families might not be able to afford. Some also are saving for their own future - I earned all my college spending money while in high school and saved it, because I knew my parents wouldn't be able to pay my way to burger places and an occasional movie. One parent raised her hand and reminded the teacher of the demands on high school students - all of the above PLUS homework. She noted how much homework this teacher assigned every night, and she noted also that most of the students were taking at least 5 "solid" courses and that each and every teacher their children had assigned at least 1 hour of homework each night. The French teacher somehow forgot that she was not the only teacher assigning homework. It may be that you too forget that your students have homework in classes besides Scripture. It is not hard to do the math.
Matt Emerson
4 years 6 months ago

Anne --

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I appreciate your reflections and your story from the front lines. You've asked some good questions and noted some themes that I've written about previously. (See, for example, my post "In Praise of Students.")

For me and for our school, we try to give homework that is thoughtful and intentional, anchored in specific learning goals. We don't want to give homework just to give homework ("busy work"), and we reject the notion that hours of homework = great school.

To that end, I don't give homework every night, and I am mindful of how much work students receive from my colleagues. Sometimes I err on giving too little; sometimes I err on giving too much, but I am always trying to find a good balance for the reasons you mention.

Regarding your other points: My original post did not address whether students deserve down time. Of course they should. To me, that goes without saying. Every human being deserves that.

My point in my post was something entirely different: the conditions under which someone is trying to complete an essay or, for example, read a few passages from a text. If, for example, students are trying to read a chapter of Old Man and the Sea while simultaneously carrying on conversations on Twitter or through text messaging, and then they don't pass a reading quiz the next day, then those study habits have to be examined. Are those distractions the only reason a student struggles? Perhaps not. But they could be a big part of it.  

An additional point from your response that I take away is that schools must continue to be mindful of what they expect of students. Do schools exert too much pressure? Are schools and teachers overscheduling students, or encouraging them to do too much? We too must examine our own patterns of encouragement to ensure that we aren't setting a standard that leads to exhaustion.

Again, thanks Anne for reading and contributing to the discussion.  

-Matt E.

Anne Chapman
4 years 6 months ago
A clarification - when I referred to "down time" for students, I was not disagreeing with your assessment that students should not have electronic distractions while studying. I do agree with that, and when my kids were at home, we did not permit email, phone, TV etc. Thankfully, this was before twitter. We did not give our kids their own computers until college (they could use one of the two adult computers for school work), there was only one TV in the house and it was not usually on at all during the week, and we loaned them our cellphones when they went out. They did not have their own cell phones until college. Kids don't text their friends' moms' phones. What I was trying to say is that the demands on their time - mostly from school homework and school activities left almost no downtime. School got out about 2:30. Sports/activities started at 3 and went until 5 or so. Often later. Once home there were several hours of homework. They did not watch TV during the week because there was no time for them to do that. It might have been nice for them to have an hour a day for TV or for socializing with friends outside of school/school activities/sports. The homework load was excessive in my view. My kids were top students and somehow managed it all, but some kids really struggled and so would often drop more demanding courses. My kids did learn good time management skills from the overload, but it would also have been possible for one or more to throw in the towel and say it's not worth it.. Many students might get discouraged with so much homework - and I do wonder, does it really help them learn? Would not 30 mins/day/subject be enough - is an hour or more/day per subject really needed, or does it push whatever learning reinforcement is gained to a negative curve - to a point of diminishing returns?


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