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Elementary Dad: When to help with homework

The nominating committee for Helicopter Parent of the Year should take note: I recently sent a letter to a 1st grade teacher asking whether my daughter’s homework was too perfect.

Let me explain. Four days a week, my 1st-grader comes home from school with a one-page worksheet in her backpack. The assignments are simple: a bit of math one day, some spelling the next, maybe a quiz to see if she remembers the difference between a reptile and an amphibian. But homework is a regular event at her school.

My 6-year-old daughter is still learning to read, so I help her figure out the assignment and sit nearby while she fills in the blanks. When she makes a mistake, I bring it to her attention and guide her toward the correct answer. The work she turns in at school the next day isn’t flawless (her penmanship is pretty bad, and the worksheet bears lots of eraser smudges), but thanks to my intervention the answers are right and the words are spelled correctly.

My own childhood wasn’t like this. I wasn’t regularly given homework until 7th grade, and I honestly can’t recall my parents ever helping me. (There was no need — I had little trouble filling a page with words, and algebra and geometry were Euclidian mysteries to my mom and dad.) If I turned in sloppy work or wrote down a wrong answer, I found out when the homework came back with a B or C grade.

So it recently occurred to me that my intervention during homework hour might not be in my daughter’s best interest. First, the teachers might get the false impression my kid is a genius. Second, my daughter could maybe benefit from a few “Do better next time” comments. Learn to find joy in a well-deserved A or heartbreak in a justified C, and you’re on the path to high standards.

This homework dilemma is part of a larger debate: When should parents offer guidance and support? And when should we let our children stumble, fall, and learn the harsh but valuable lessons they get through experience?

A number of books claim to answer such questions. But many authors have one-size-fits-all solutions that don’t address life’s complexities. Take fashion, for example. I dressed myself like a colorblind moron throughout elementary school, until my older sisters stopped laughing and told me that a shirt with horizontal stripes and pants with vertical stripes don’t belong on the same person. (This was during the fashion-challenged 1970s, but some ground rules were still in effect.) I didn’t learn anything from dressing like a dork. I learned something only when my mistake was corrected.

I think of this fashion lesson every time my daughter emerges from her bedroom wearing some mismatched ensemble. Should I send her back to the closet or allow her to express her 6-year-old style sense? What if my child’s choices attract hurtful taunts on a playground? If that happens, will classmates’ teasing teach my child more effectively than fashion advice from a guy wearing dad jeans?

Fortunately, the homework dilemma was easily solved. The teacher wrote back to say I was doing the right thing by guiding my daughter toward the right answers. My kid’s work in class told them all they needed to know about her skills, and “Definitely help her at home” was the clear reply. Now, if only Donna Karan would answer my letters.

Last modified on Monday, 06 February 2012 15:28

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