When Should You Help Your Kids With Their Homework?

Parents' homework help is most useful when kids are young or older and struggling with a subject that you know well.

Here is a scenario most parents can relate to: It’s late afternoon and your children come home from school exhausted, weighed down by school bags full of homework. Do you sit down to help them with it or encourage them to do it on their own?

The answer is “It depends.” In the most comprehensive summary of the scientific literature to date, researchers from Duke University concluded that whether parents should help their children with their homework depends on:

  1. The child’s grade level
  2. How knowledgeable parents are about the subject matter
  3. How parents help

How old are they?

Before you sit down with your children to help them with homework, consider their ages. Researchers have consistently found that homework assistance is beneficial for children in elementary and high school, but not for middle-school-aged children. If your children are in middle school, you are better off letting them do their homework on their own.

Why? Researchers believe that parental assistance in elementary school helps because their kids are young and impressionable and your help is about more than completing the homework; you are also teaching them how to study.

It is different when they are in high school. At that age, researchers speculate that your involvement adds value because you are only likely to help out when you have particular expertise to share.

Why is it detrimental to try and help middle-schoolers?

Researchers think the issue is their specific developmental stage. As budding teenagers caught between childhood and adulthood, middle-school-aged children have a strong need for autonomy and are likely to resist any effort on your part to interfere in their affairs.

As the father of a 14-year-old son who is about to enter high school, I recognize these behaviors from my own experiences. When my son was in elementary school, he absolutely loved when we did his homework together; it was a great occasion for father-son bonding. Over time, he developed some impressive study habits and skills that have served him well in middle school, and which, I hope, will continue in high school. Although we still share many great moments together, it is safe to say that they rarely involve his homework.

What do you know?

Before you decide whether to help your child, you should also consider if you are qualified to do so. Researchers have discovered that the more parents know about the subject matter, the more useful it is for the child. This makes intuitive sense. You may even teach your children new ways to accomplish certain tasks. However, when you know little or nothing about the topic, your children are likely to get frustrated and you might even introduce mistakes into their work.

Researchers have found parents are better able to help children with reading and writing than with math homework, primarily because most parents are simply better at it. Parents often know less about math and are less up-to-date with the latest instructional strategies. Also, a parent’s old instructional strategies often conflict with contemporary methods taught at school.

Set rules, don’t do the work

One of the most consistent findings is that children benefit the most when parents support them in their efforts rather than help them out every step of the way.

There is nothing wrong with working very closely with your children on their homework, since this will help them develop study habits and skills. Yet, the most effective form of involvement is to set clear expectations and guidelines and reward good behavior when those are met.

Create rules for when, where, and how homework is supposed to be completed. Research indicates that when parents set ground rules, children spend more time on their homework, use that time more effectively, and, most importantly, internalize those rules so that they become routine, good habits over time.

Tanni Haas, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Communication Arts, Sciences, and Disorders


Categories: Elementary Age, Featured Ages and Stages, Featured Education