Helping your child with a tough piece of homework may seem only natural, but will your input do more harm than good? We look at how to ease their burden without interfering.
Parental guidance: how much is too much?
It started with a bit of scissor-work. I was just helping with the dangerous bits, I said, as I began to help with my son’s art project – a distinctly home-made-looking cardboard castle. The allure of glitter and glue was too much for me, though. Before I knew it, I was completing the last turret.
I felt guilty, fearing that I had given him an unfair advantage. I needn’t have worried; every parent, it seemed, had rolled up their sleeves too. Elaborate confections of pipe-cleaners and papier mâché competed with complex edifices of wood and florist’s foam. We’d been completely outclassed.
For some parents, it’s a way of showing they care. “My mum never helped me with such things; she was too busy,” says Kathy Brown, 45, a mother-of-two. “So when it was my daughter’s turn, I weighed in. The only thing was, I went overboard.”
Brown created an ambitious scuba-diving display for her 9-year-old daughter’s art project, with a shoebox made to look like the inside of an aquarium, complete with suspended fish and sparkly seaweed. “My daughter didn’t win, although this was clearly the best entry. I can only assume we were rumbled, but who is to say every entry wasn’t parent-assisted?”
The problems arise when some parents have helped and others have not. The Dubai-based expatriate Bridgette Medford, 54, has always been clear that while she would advise and encourage her son Jack, she would not do his homework for him.
“I am dismayed that some parents find it necessary to oversee their children’s lives to that extent,” she says. “What message are they conveying by doing everything for them? ‘Let me do it, you’re not good enough?’ How can that be good for self-confidence and self-esteem?”
The parenting educator Carmen Benton (www.lifeworksdubai.com) agrees. She worries that some schools in the UAE are setting homework that is so complex that it can only be done with help from parents.
“It’s not every school,” she says, “but many parents are reporting that the projects coming home are ones that kids can’t do without their input, [such as] a diorama project that involved sticking, gluing and cutting – skills that a child doesn’t have. It’s not of benefit to anybody if it’s clearly done by a parent.” What worries Benton is the message that this gives the child. “It reduces their confidence and self-worth.”
Doing a child’s homework for them can also make them feel helpless, according to the paediatrician Dr Rajeshri Singhania of the Singhania Children’s Clinic in Dubai. “The child may shrug off responsibilities and expect mum to take over when things get difficult.”
Of course, helping with a homework project is usually done with the best of motives, as the child and adult psychiatrist Dr Veena Luthra of the American Center for Psychiatry and Neurology in Abu Dhabi acknowledges: “It comes from well-meaning parents who want their child to do well.”
It rarely benefits the child, though, she says. “The downside of over-parenting is that you never learn independence. Children get so used to being taken care of that they won’t learn how to deal with failure.”
It’s not all bad, though. Sue Carpenter, the head of primary education at Jumeira Baccalaureate School in Dubai, welcomes input from parents, provided it doesn’t feel like a burden to them.
“I am simply delighted to have parents who take the time to either sit with their children or to watch from a short distance, to make themselves available to support as may be required, particularly since so many of them have full-time day jobs themselves,” she says.
She points out that a shared homework project can be a valuable tool for raising important issues, recalling a project that involved making an anti-bullying poster at home. She didn’t mind that some had a great deal of help from parents.
“In many ways, I’m glad that they did, for in doing so, I am sure that they discussed at length very important issues relating to anti-bullying.” The solution is to adopt a balanced approach, says Luthra. She advises parents to stand back a little. “Don’t take over. Sit with your child and have a brainstorming session. What are your child’s ideas? If your child is given a chance, you might be amazed by what he or she comes up with.”
Dos and don'ts
How to approach your child’s homework project
• Help with dangerous things such as handling scissors or knives or taking hot dishes out of the oven.
• Talk to your child’s teacher if you think their homework is genuinely too advanced or burdensome; this may be valuable feedback.
• Believe that your child is capable of being creative by him or herself; you might be surprised by what they can achieve without your help.
• Take over because you think you can do a better job. If you want a creative outlet, find a craft hobby rather than doing your child’s artwork.
• Expect your child to be brilliant in every subject; children need space and encouragement to find what they excel at and you can’t force this upon them.
• Boast if your own creation has won a prize. Other parents will not admire you or your child when you post a picture of your winning project on Facebook.