When my first son started school, I was a classic first-time mom when it came to homework help. I studied each and every worksheet and project he brought home. I hovered over him while he worked, cheerfully asking if he needed help, and then checking his homework over to make sure it was perfect.
That worked well enough through most of elementary school, when he would still give me the time of day and when tasks like homework felt like fun bonding experiences for us both. But in just a few years—especially as homework wasn’t just about drawing cute pictures and tracing letters—this way of doing things on my part began to turn sour.
Homework began to morph into a dreaded task, and my constant involvement turned more into nagging and meddling. It became clear that my presence wasn’t helping the matter, even when my son seemed to need assistance with his homework.
One afternoon, he was particularly frustrated, and he ended up throwing his notebook across the room, declaring: “I CAN’T DO THIS.”
Suddenly—more out of desperation than anything—I decided to completely change my tactics.
“So don’t,” I said.
I realized in that moment that the truth was that it didn’t matter if he did his homework this one night or not. If it was causing him that much stress, it wasn’t worth it, and his teacher would not care about one missed night.
But what ended up happening is exactly the opposite of what I expected. Instead of just ignoring his homework, my son picked it up a few hours later (after he’d cooled off) and just did the homework himself, without my asking and without my help.
And since that day, I’ve tried to back the hell off and seen similar positive results. I do the same thing for his younger brother, too, who just entered kindergarten this year.
Here’s what I do: I tell my kids that they need to do their homework by a certain time, and they know that I will help them with it if they want me to. But the rest is up to them. Either it gets done or it doesn’t. And since I’ve taken this approach, it gets done more often than it doesn’t.
I don’t know if it’s their own inner-critic motivating them to do it—or maybe the fact that they seem enamored of their teachers and want to impress them. But there’s rarely a day that my kids completely skip their homework, and this happens with minimal nagging or interference from me.
No yelling, no tears.
But it turns out it’s not just me, and that maybe I’ve been onto something here with my little method. A new study from Finland, which looked at the homework practices of kids and their parents in grades 2-4 found that too much parental interference almost always backfires—and that if you want kids who will work hard and persistently on their homework, you’ve got to leave them the heck alone.
The research is part of the The First Steps Study from the University of Eastern Finland and the University of Jyväskylä, which is looking at 2,000 school children and their habits. This particular portion of the study examined the mother-child dynamic when it came to homework help. The researchers found that the more the mother offered opportunities for autonomous work, the more likely the child was to stay on task and persist.
On the other hand, when a mother provided more concrete help, the less independent and task-oriented the child became. The researchers also observed that when this happened, the mothers only sought to offer more homework help, which you can imagine only continued to exacerbate the problem. And the researchers point out that these associations remained stable even after controlling for a child’s academic skill level.
Jaana Viljaranta, Associate Professor from the University of Eastern Finland, has some theories about why the research played out as it did, and her take actually makes total sense to me.
“One possible explanation is that when the mother gives her child an opportunity to do homework autonomously, the mother also sends out a message that she believes in the child’s skills and capabilities,” says Viljaranta. “This, in turn, makes the child believe in him- or herself, and in his or her skills and capabilities.”
Basically, when you are constantly micro-managing your kid during homework time, you might inadvertently be setting your kid up to think that they are incapable of doing the work themselves, or that you don’t really believe in their ability to do it. And that isn’t really the goal here, is it?
Of course, no one is saying that if you kid needs help with their homework, you shouldn’t help. But the idea is that the desire for your presence during homework time should come from your child, not from you (and your need to poke your business into every aspect of their lives).
“It is important for parents to take the child’s needs into consideration when offering homework assistance. Of course, parents should offer concrete help when their child clearly needs it. However, concrete help is not something that should be made automatically available in every situation — only when needed,” Viljaranta explains.
Listen, I’m not perfect when it comes to this stuff. There are definitely days when I turn into a demon and scream “Do your damn homework now OR ELSE.” And there are still times I stand over them, making sure it finally gets done. But more often than not, I try to let it go, and put the onus on them to get it done.
This method generally works wonders, because when it comes down to do it, most kids want to accomplish the good stuff. They want to feel good about themselves. They want to soar. But you’ve got to let that drive come from within them.
Their accomplishments can’t be all about us. And it’s time we all had a little more faith in that.