Going Overboard

From elementary school science projects to college applications, kids look to their parents for guidance. But at what point is our help no longer helpful? The boundary isn’t always clear and a parent’s good intentions to provide assistance can backfire when kids don’t learn to take ownership of their own work.

Determining just how involved we should be can be difficult. As teachers know, parents are essential to their children’s academic success. Kids who have little or no support at home tend to struggle more in school than those with parents who are actively involved. “Parents who are keyed in to school provide built-in tutoring, and the emotional support and encouragement many children need,” says Deb Krupowicz, sixth grade teacher and Dayton Parent “Ask the Teacher” columnist. “Striking a balance is a challenge for all parents. When a parent finds himself thinking, ‘I wonder how much homework we will have tonight?’ he has a skewed sense of helpfulness.”

A child with a “helicopter parent” who routinely steps in to take ownership of an assignment or project robs their son or daughter of the chance to feel confident in their own abilities. “The natural cycle of not knowing, of working through the murkiness of confusion, of trying and failing, and of finally trying and succeeding is circumvented,” says Krupowicz.

School counselor Jennifer Wilson agrees. “It’s difficult to see your child in trouble. [But] if a child is constantly getting the message that his parent has to step in, they can feel helpless and incompetent. They never get the opportunity to be successful on their own.”

Unfortunately, setting up this dynamic in childhood can carry over to adulthood, with young adults never developing important skills like self-motivation and resiliency. Molli Stephens, a human resources professional, says it’s not uncommon to see young job applicants bring parents to interviews. “It’s wonderful for parents to be involved, to encourage and prep their children on their job search. However, there is a point where they need to step away and let the child own the job search himself. When a candidate brings his parent to an interview it shows me that he is not independent, cannot think on his own, and is too reliant on a parental figure.”

Although it’s hard for parents to watch their child struggle – especially when it would be so easy to step in and help them resolve a problem quickly, fighting this urge ultimately leads to empowered, confident kids. Recently, the “No Rescue” approach to parenting has been talked about in the media – a premise that kids should experience the natural consequences of their actions instead of relying on parents to “fix” everything for them. For example, when a child forgets his homework at home, a parent doesn’t “rescue” him by bringing it to school, but lets him suffer the consequences of a poor grade or discipline by the teacher. This experience teaches a more valuable lesson to kids in the long run about being responsible for their work and for themselves.

When it comes to providing a healthy amount of help, Wilson and Krupowicz offer these tips:
Make sure your expectations of your child’s responsibility and academic abilities are realistic based upon the child’s age and emotional maturity.

Set them up for success by creating a homework routine, including a homework zone stocked with basic supplies and free of distractions.

Go over directions and check for understanding. Offer overall feedback, but not specific right or wrong answers.

Check on progress periodically to encourage your child to focus, and check over work once it’s completed.

If you see evidence that your child is struggling with concepts, and simple explanations don’t help, let the teacher know so he or she can work to improve the situation.

Remember that the goal of homework is not perfection, but for the child to develop skills needed for academic success.
And then step back. Let your children learn from their mistakes and take pride in their successes – knowing that both belong to them.

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