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Parents Talk Back: The art of not helping

My crucible was a papier-mâché pueblo village. A fifth-grade teacher assigned my daughter the project as part of a social studies unit. Typically, she worked on projects like this with a fair amount of parental guidance and oversight.

I passed the math word problems over to my spouse, but crafty and creative research assignments? That’s my jam.

But this year, I had decided to take a hands-off approach to homework. I would still check to make sure my children were getting it done, but it was going to be all their own unassisted work and not my responsibility.

So, as hard as it was to stand by and watch the papier-mâché explosion in my kitchen, I sat on my hands.

The research backs up my resolve. The most thorough scientific investigation of how parental involvement affects students’ academic achievement was published earlier this year by sociology professors Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris. Their research found that parental assistance isn't always a help in the long run. It can actually be a hindrance.

They reviewed nearly three decades’ worth of longitudinal surveys of American parents and assessed more than 60 different measures of parental participation, from helping with homework to volunteering at schools, and controlled for parents' race, class and level of education. They looked at the relationship between that involvement and the students' academic progress, by measures such as reading and math test scores.

Most of the parental involvement didn’t translate to better scores or better long-term outcomes. Robinson and Harris's data, published in “The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement With Children's Education,” found that once students enter middle school, parental help with homework can actually bring test scores down.

The things that did seem to help? Reading to young children and talking to teenagers about college. Sending the message that school is important and providing support and encouragement when a child’s academic performance falters.

There is wisdom in letting children try on their own, even when they are getting it wrong. But this is also not to say children should be left to sink or swim on their own.

Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, recently wrote an op-ed in which he described not helping as his 5-year-old son struggled for a minute to sound out the word “gratefully” while reading a book together.

Parents have a natural impulse to want to step in at the first sign of difficulty. But, as Khan described in his essay, he is teaching his son that his brain grows when he struggles to learn something hard. We gravitate toward things that come easily and naturally to us. Learning happens in the struggle. That effort is also how we develop persistence.

Many parents fear their child will suffer if all of her peers are getting additional help while she tries to keep up alone.

A mom, who admitted to spending considerable time watching YouTube videos learning how to help her teenage son with a major high school project, explained her motivation: You don’t want your child to fall behind because he’s the only one not getting extra help. She poured hours of her own time into helping with the typing, formatting and grunt work involved with his assignment. The school had fostered a culture so competitive that it took parental involvement to excel.

That kind of environment is doing a disservice in the long run to the students, and some brave parents ought to speak up about it.

At the elementary and middle school levels, it becomes fairly evident to teachers when parents have taken too large a role in a student's project or homework. After all, they see the classroom performance and work of the same child day-to-day.

In our low-stakes fifth grade homework, the pueblo turned out just fine. In fact, my daughter took great pride in having done it by herself. It may have even provided a boost of confidence for her to know that she could figure it out on her own.

When the next assignment involved making a puppet of Abraham Lincoln, she asked for some fabric and a sewing kit. I handed her the supplies and didn’t even offer to thread the needle.

The puppet's hat didn't quite fit. And the beard may have been a bit uneven. But she managed to capture the spirit of Honest Abe perfectly.

Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age. On Twitter: @AishaS.

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