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Raising Resilient Children May Require You to Rethink Homework Help

Your parents didn’t teach you how to raise children during a pandemic; you had to innovate and adapt. And you can help your children develop that same sort of resourcefulness.

Photo courtesy of August De Richelieu via Pexels

We now know the pandemic will not have a clear endpoint but will fade slowly. Each of us must decide when we feel ready to fly on a plane, shake a stranger’s hand or eat at an indoor restaurant. You may make these decisions tentatively, and even reverse yourself. 

Parents face a similar decision in supporting their children with their schoolwork. 

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When schools were closed, there was no question that kids needed help; they were under stress, and Zoom was a tough way to learn, so parents stepped up. Sixty-three percent said they monitored their child’s schoolwork during remote learning, and 65 percent actually taught content. Some of my friends, frazzled by working at home and full-time childcare responsibility, told me that they sometimes completed school assignments themselves, saying, “it was just easier.” 

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Now, students are back in classrooms, but things aren’t back to normal at most schools. Parents may wonder how much help to provide in this new situation.

Kids differ in their needs, of course, but parents should know that too much help with schoolwork can backfire in two ways. 

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To understand the first, consider this example. A father is helping his daughter study for a history test by listening to her explain the content to him. She reads from her notes “The Era of Good Feelings in the United States lasted from 1815 to 1825.” Her father jumps in to ask, “OK, so when was the Era of Good Feelings?” She’s readily answers without checking her notes again, and so she concludes she has this fact memorized. 

As you might have guessed, she’s probably mistaken—she read the fact moments ago, so it’s still in her short-term memory. This type of mistake is common; when someone behaves like a person with knowledge—in this case, answering her father’s question—she thinks she has that knowledge. She ignores that something else—in this case, reading her notes moments ago—supported the behavior, not her long-term memory.

In a recent experiment on this sort of confusion, nine- and 10-year-olds were shown a toy pantograph. The child used a stencil to trace a letter with a stylus. The stylus was connected, via hinged, jointed rods, to a carving needle, which etched the traced letter into a crayon. Some children received no guidance about how to use the pantograph, and none of them got it to work. A second group of children watched an adult use the device before trying it themselves, and 97 percent of them succeeded. 

Yet 70 percent of them said that watching the adult was unnecessary; they would have figured out how to use it on their own. 

This is one way providing help with homework may backfire; children can develop an unrealistic idea of what they actually understand and what they still need to work at.

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A second problem is that providing too much support may send the unintended message that you believe your child is incompetent. Your child may think that your stepping in shows you believe they can’t do the work on their own. Even if he asked for help, readily providing it affirms you think he needs it; after all, you might have instead expressed confidence that he could do it if he kept trying.

A recent study showed that children do, under some circumstances, interpret adult help in this way. Children aged 4 or 5 years played two difficult puzzle games. For some children, the experimenter took over the first game after 10 seconds, saying, “Hmm, this is hard. Let me just do it,” and then completed the puzzle. Compared to children allowed to work on their own, these kids didn’t work on the second puzzle very long. The researchers concluded, “taking over teaches children that when tasks are hard, an adult will do them for you.”

Thus, providing too much help with schoolwork can give your child the impression they are learning when they aren’t, and it can leave them less persistent in the face of difficult tasks. 

So, what are parents to do if their child asks for help, or appears to need it? 

First, before offering assistance, ask her what she’s already done to try to solve the problem. If the answer sounds like “close to nothing,” send her back to the drawing board. 

If she has tried on her own, ask questions about her strategies: Did any seem promising? Did she learn why some of the failed methods didn’t work? Sometimes merely reviewing what she’s done will give her a new idea to try.

You can also ask about sources she can use to get further ideas. What instructions did the teacher provide? Has the class read something recently that might help? Has she been encouraged to do research about the problem online? 

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The hope is that your child will learn to take these steps before requesting help; your goal is to make her resourceful in solving problems on her own.  

Learning and using strategies to problem-solve when you’re at a loss is difficult work, and you should obviously be mindful of your child’s age and experience in setting your expectations of what she can do on her own. In addition, be sure to offer emotional support by expressing confidence that she can solve problems without your help. 

And of course, once it’s clear to you that your child has made a good effort but still needs guidance, provide it.

Your parents didn’t teach you how to raise children during a pandemic; you had to innovate and adapt. You can help your children develop that sort of resourcefulness by allowing productive struggle with some of the problems they face. 

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