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Homework Responsibility for Children

Maggie complained, “I don’t know how to do this math homework,” after bargaining with her mother, Edna, that she would get to work after watching a “quick” movie, eating dinner and playing outside with her friends. The assignment was using the “mental math” skills that were practiced in Maggie’s second grade class. Yet, Maggie didn’t have a clue how to do it. Edna was clueless as well. It was too late to call anyone in Maggie’s class… No amount of prodding could help Maggie to remember what she was supposed to do. The only thing Maggie was sure of was that her mom’s suggestions didn’t match what Mrs. Jennings said in class. After an exasperating hour and a half, Maggie went to bed without completing her math homework, and both mother and daughter felt like failures.

Ages and Stages of Homework

Many parents wonder what kind of help a child typically needs at a given age. From preschool to college, a parent’s role evolves. You stay close by as your toddler struggles with a new puzzle – not wanting to take over, but not wanting frustration to overwhelm him either. If you forgot about helping him choose a vegetable for the “Stone Soup” project until morning, you might have plunked a potato in his hand as you hurried him out the door. If you forgot until you saw that all the other children brought vegetables, your child’s momentary disappointment would’ve paled in comparison to the guilt that would haunt you all day.

During early learning years, it feels as if it is up to you just how much homework he is able to accomplish “on his own.” Through elementary school, establishing a routine for homework, including well-placed assignment reminders and reasonable limits on screen time, is more the responsibility of a parent than the child. Somewhere between preschool and college, however, the button of responsibility must pass from parents to children.

Personality Factors of Children

Parents must consider personality and learning style factors when determining how much help their children need. Maggie’s personality, for example, is full of spunk and spontaneity. While she doesn’t need to follow a routine every day after school – she follows through best when she sets her own timetable – her mom can add some structure to foster success. Maggie’s mom should review what the assignments are as soon as she gets home to help Maggie estimate how long things should take (so that ample time is set aside). Other personalities prefer unchanging routines – snack, outside play, homework, dinner break, finish homework, or have reading time, half-hour of TV and bedtime. Some personalities like to tackle homework in advance on Mondays and taper off as the week winds down.

In addition to personality, understanding one’s learning style is critical. Maggie is one of those can’t-sit-still students who does best with some running around in between the car ride home and sitting down to tackle homework. Not all homework has to be done sitting still in a chair. Drills, such as spelling words or math facts, can be accomplished while taking a walk or shooting baskets together.

Getting Started for parents

What does a successful homework session look like? A parent should be available during homework time – close enough to clarify, re-direct, or suggest a resource (or a break). You can cook dinner, read the paper or play with the baby while the little scholar can tap into your consciousness with ease: “Is ten hundred the same as one thousand?” You can also keep tabs on your child’s progress: “Up to problem 20 yet?”

Some children need more reassurance and guidance at the beginning of an assignment. Then, you can back away (still within earshot) as they get comfortable. A big project – science fair experiment or oral book report – requires long-range planning and management skills that most children have not yet mastered. Teach them how to break the task into timely chunks. And, if between the two of you, the homework doesn’t get done right, or doesn’t get done at all, help children to be successful at learning from failure.

Home/School Connection

Are you stumped by terminology or techniques? You’re probably not the only parent asking for help. Find out when and how a teacher prefers contact from students’ parents. By middle school, children should develop skills to ask for help on their own, but every situation is different. The bottom line is that if your child needs your help, you should give it. A learning disability, vision or hearing impairment, or emotional challenge (parents’ divorce, bully at school, etc.) can add difficulty to your child’s mastery of schoolwork. Open discussion with a teacher or guidance counselor can lead to a better understanding of your child’s unique needs, and steer you to resources including homework tutors, websites related to the academic topics, or online postings of daily assignments by each teacher.

School homework has many benefits. It reinforces what is learned earlier in the day, allows for deeper understanding of a subject without the distractions of classmates and a hurried school schedule, and enables parents to add their own life experience and other resources to the learning process. Ultimately, children learn that parents are there to support their growing independence.

Are you all clear on your assignment now?

Homework Helpers

The Homework Handbook by Harriet Cholden, M.Ed. and John Friedman, Ph.D.

Elementary worksheets, plus games to reinforce math skills

Games include algebra and precalculus concepts

Guide for mathematical conversions

Multiple links for all subjects, all grades, book lists, writing tips

World maps and key facts for countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe

Math resources for all grades and levels.


Author Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist in Annapolis.

Chesapeake Family serves parents and families in Annapolis, Anne Arundel County, Baltimore, Bowie, Calvert and Prince George’s County and the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

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