Being a tutor, I have met a lot of parents: corporate parents / super parents / feral parents / tiger parents / helicopter parents – you make up a name for it, I’ve seen it. But behind all of the parental bravado, all parents fundamentally want the same things for their kids – the best – whatever your definition of that is. So it doesn’t surprise me that a lot of parents help their kids with their homework where they can. This can be innocent enough, the odd question here or there, but there are also the hardcore parents who have graduated from the odd question to essentially doing the child’s homework for them. For me, though the intention comes from the right place, the approach is all wrong.
‘What’s wrong with that?’ you may cry – the kid is only (place here any age from 3 to 16). Here is the moment I insert a toddler analogy. When you are teaching a toddler a certain skill there are many schools of thought. Let’s take cutlery as an example. Do you chose to let them experiment on their own, or you feed them yourself? This conundrum was one that was always in the back of my head, one that led me to question whether I had ever seen an adult not know how to use a fork. You can insert most phrases here for basic skills: Have you ever seen an adult that can’t – go to the toilet / sleep on their own / dress themselves? – the list goes on. For study, the same principle does not apply, because when I ask myself – Have you ever seen a university student struggle because they don’t know how to study? The answer, unfortunately, is YES.
Whatever your reason for doing it – whether you think you are genuinely helping / want your child to show their best for school / don’t want the drama about homework – you need to stop. I never advocate “helping” with homework; It usually becomes a vicious cycle of disappointments. You help your child, the teacher can’t see that the child is struggling, the child then doesn’t receive extra help at school but thinks that they can do it (because you are always “helping”). Eventually, a test comes up and when the child inevitably doesn’t perform as expected, both the child and teacher are disappointed. You panic and start giving more “help”. Rinse and repeat. There are lots of ways that you can help without “helping”. If your child is struggling, tell the school – that’s their job! So to all the mums and dads out there, cut the apron strings and let your child fly solo academically – given time I’m sure their ability will start to amaze you. However, it’s important to be realistic, your child will sometimes fail, mess up and get lost, but that is all part of life and the learning experience. As parents you can be there emotionally to pick up the pieces, dust them off and set them on their way again. Trust me, they can handle it.
In my experience, I have actually found that it is the parents that have a hard time letting go of the homework control, rather than the child having problems with their new independence. It may take a couple of weeks but the children tend to flourish as they start to realise that they can do things on their own and get them right; a sense of pride kicks in. I think children by their very nature are adaptable and resourceful, whereas parents are more stuck in their ways, but when they start to see this new confidence in their children then the letting go of control always gets easier.
Of course, I am not suggesting that you stop parenting your children, just stop spoon-feeding them academically. There are many ways that you can help without “helping”: listening to their reading, time organisation, creating the perfect study environment, providing emotional support, and showing them how to maximise their resources among many other things. If a child learns how to learn early, then they will reap the benefits of it throughout their academic careers. So when other children are flapping at exam time, the independent learners will already have it covered. When other students are struggling with the step up in a subject, the independent learner already knows the techniques that work for them to take it to another level.
There are loads of things that parents can do to help their children help themselves. Firstly, as parents you can make the working environment as concentration friendly as possible. A dedicated area for study is a really good idea, if you have the space to do it. It should be a quiet space with little/no distractions, it should be well lit and fully stocked with all your resources. Whilst your child is using the space you can provide some healthy refreshments as needed, so the temptation to “get a quick snack” is averted. If you don’t have the space for this then I advise getting a desk bag/box, This is a bag/box with all the resources that a desk may have. This way, when the dining table has to become the desk they just need the bag/box and they have everything that they need – no need to get up every five minutes to get something.
Once you have created this environment you now have to get them to use it, set times of the day for periods of work, this is easier the younger you start. That way they know that that time is always work time. If there is no homework, then some reading is a good substitute when they are young, or reading ahead of class if they are older. For younger kids think of this time as quiet time. As they get older and the work load increases this is something you can sit down and do together, so they don’t feel they are being dictated to, work as a team. Once you get them working at the same time, in the same place for a period of time, they will start to do it automatically and the nagging will slowly fade away, but you have to stick at it and not give up at the first moan.
So now they are in the perfect space, at the set time and they are actually starting to work. Suddenly, your child has a problem that they can’t do – DON’T solve it. Ideally, you want to encourage your kids to be self sufficient learners and try and work through things themselves. You want them to exhaust all of their resources before they come to you. Being told the answer to something is the quickest, but also the laziest way of working out a problem. More often than not if the child comes across a similar problem again they still won’t know how to solve it. Encourage self-discovery and self-sufficiency when it comes to learning, and when that has been exhausted, then (and only then) you can step in. Instead of showing them how to do it, ask them open ended questions that can guide them to the answer, so that they are thinking through the problem, rather than passively listening to you. This makes the process more active so that they are more likely to remember what you have shown them at a later date. If you don’t know something don’t fake it. It is very reassuring to know that your parents don’t know it all and can be honest about it. What you can then do is show them how you would use the resources to find the answer, then you can discover the answer together.
Everybody’s circumstances are different, so you should adapt this method to fit your own family situation. There will be some children that won’t need any of this as they are already doing it successfully on their own, or there will be certain kids that will fight you every step of the way – you know your family better than I do. This is just a framework that I use with my clients – I’m not saying that it suddenly makes everything easy, but it definitely helps. In fact, the hardest thing is for the parents to let go of helping with everything, but don’t worry, you can do it.
My proudest moments as a tutor are when I have a student that has progressed massively, and they turn to thank me. I quickly remind them that actually, I didn’t teach them any content, in fact, they did it all by themselves. Watching that penny drop moment is priceless, and at that point I know my job is done. We all have moments when things are extra hard and we need additional support, but the more independent the child is academically the more likely they are to brush it all off and get back on that horse.