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Two Decades of Kids and Counting

By Sally Torbey

About this blog: About this blog: I have enjoyed parenting five children in Palo Alto for the past two decades and have opinions about everything to do with parenting kids (and dogs). The goal of my blog is to share the good times and discuss the ...  (More)

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Homework help: when less is more

Uploaded: Jul 6, 2014
We hear a lot of interesting comments about our large family, but my favorite is the question the custom official at the Beirut airport asked a few years back. After inspecting our stack of passports, he glanced at our crowd of children and asked my husband, "all these kids with just one wife?"

We are frequently asked by parents with two or three kids how we manage. I assure them that we are not super human, we just have lower standards than they do, and easy kids. I did not fully appreciate how essential our kids' compliant, cooperative temperaments were to harmonious family life until we acquired a dog, who has neither.

We also embrace a parenting philosophy of benign neglect. Per The Oxford Dictionary, "a noninterference that is intended to benefit someone ? more than continual attention would." As any parent of three knows, moving from man-to-man to zone defense is a game changer. When children outnumber parents, meeting each child's needs and desires on a consistent basis is a distant memory. Although our kids will argue that they have been deprived of attention, we like to think that having so many siblings has helped them acquire skills and self-sufficiency.

We are always happy to have support for our less is more approach, and thus were delighted to read Judith Newman's recent opinion piece in The New York Times, "But I want to do your homework." She cites research by two sociologists, Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris, that shows that kids whose parents help with homework actually do worse academically. Even high achieving kids' grades suffer when parents are involved.

For years we have felt guilty for not figuring out how to build a circuit so that our then second-grade daughter's lighthouse beacon would blink on and off. Now there is scientific evidence that we actually helped her succeed by not helping her with the project!

Robinson's and Harris's book, "The Broken Compass", takes on the widely held and seemingly logical assumption that parental involvement leads to higher academic achievement. Encouraging parental involvement has been viewed as an essential part of the solution to our nation's educational woes. Although seemingly counterintuitive, their analysis suggests that parental involvement is not the panacea for which many have hoped.

This is life-changing news for parents of school-aged children! Think of all the time parents will have at their disposal if they are not quizzing their students on the two-letter state name abbreviations or helping build models of the human brain with labeled color-coded regions. And think of all the guilt those of us who have trouble finding time to help with homework can shed!

According to Robinson and Harris, what does seem to make a consistent difference in academic performance is that parents "convey the importance of education to their children" and "create and maintain an environment for them in which learning can be maximized." Those tasks seem much less daunting and time consuming than solving the pre-algebra problem of the week!

What is it worth to you?


Posted by Kirsten, a resident of Community Center,
on Jul 7, 2014 at 8:19 am

This research could indeed be a game changer. In our house we continually struggle with how much help is too much? I am curious about what this research suggests about using tutors?


Posted by Debbie, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 7, 2014 at 9:18 am

Thanks for sharing the ideas from this research, and your funny family stories! It is a constant challenge to determine what is appropriate "helping" to create a healthy learning environment for our children. We have to transition from doing everything for them as an infant, to gradually allowing them to do more and more on their own as they grow. It is such a moment of joy to see our kids begin to manage their own challenges and bounce back from disappointment and failure.

Posted by Maria, a resident of University South,
on Jul 7, 2014 at 10:14 am

Thank you Sally, I do agree with you. Sometimes is difficult as a parent to see and accept a sad face in your child because his/her project was not as wonderful as the one which was made with parents help. As parents we have to learn to be patient and plan for the long run and not for the immediate reward.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jul 7, 2014 at 10:43 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi Kirsten,
They didn't look at tutoring in this study, as they were focused on whether parental involvement is the missing ingredient in underachievers, which appears not to be the case. Hard to predict how tutoring would come out. Some of the same drawbacks exist as with parental help, but there are certainly differences, too.

Hi Debbie,
Yes, resilience seems to be a key to happiness, but it is not always easy to stand back and let them manage it.

Hi Maria,
This research certainly helps us in knowing maybe it is worth the passing disappointment!

Posted by Mother of 4 , a resident of Palo Verde School,
on Jul 7, 2014 at 11:48 am

No comments about this except the flip side from my own perspective growing up. My parents were (possibly conned into buying) very proud of the fact that they purchased a large set of encyclopedias which were heavy and kept on the high top shelf of a bookcase because they were so tall. Whenever I asked for help from them the reply was "look it up in the encyclopedia", or if I wanted to know how to spell a word, it was "look it up in the dictionary". I soon learned not to bother asking them for help, but never used the hard to get at encyclopedias or look up a word in the dictionary, particularly if I didn't know if it started with a C or S, or was stumped at the second letter.

I still feel that if my parents had sat with me and opened the encyclopedias or helped me use the dictionary, it would have been much more helpful than just telling me to use them by myself.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jul 7, 2014 at 12:18 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi Mother of 4,
Thanks for reading and commenting. The authors make a point in the book of stressing that this does not mean that parental involvement is not important or that parents should become less involved in their children's lives. Their point is that it is questionable whether all the effort that is currently going on to increase parental involvement is going to make a difference in student achievement as measured by test grades or close the achievement gap. They do, however, promote parents "setting the stage" for learning as an effective way of increasing achievement. In your example, "setting the stage" might have meant making the encyclopedias more accessible or giving you some spelling hints so you could use the dictionary more effectively. Aren't our kids lucky to have learning tools that are much more user-friendly? More often, it is them instructing me!

Posted by Karen, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Jul 7, 2014 at 5:11 pm

Hi Sally,

Thanks for decoding some of those books and reminding us that the kids will figure it out. It's so hard to not want to jump in at that first cry for help, but then I find that when I was distracted with other items, the work got done. I think that when the kids does it, even if it's not perfect, when there's a mistake, they learn better. The child can see where they got off track and what went wrong.It's hard to sit back and let them get it wrong, when a test or grade is on the line, particularly in this town!

Posted by LJ, a resident of another community,
on Jul 7, 2014 at 5:31 pm

All those parents doing their children's homework might be staving off their own Alzheimer's? Just kidding ... I think! Great piece, Sally!

Posted by happy medium, a resident of University South,
on Jul 7, 2014 at 7:56 pm

I really wish this would become the accepted way of doing things in PAUSD but it doesn't seem to be. We were warned that parental involvement is still necessary at Jordan! After what my child went through in 5th grade I was looking forward to decreased involvement in homework (and still hope that will be the reality. Please somebody, tell me that it is!). So what are parents of kids with learning differences supposed to do? The teachers still seem to throw everything on the parents and expect the kids to do well. I guess that's where tutors come in but tutors are so expensive and my kid deserves to do sports and other fun extracurriculars. Has anybody come up with a happy medium between guiding on homework but not over helping?

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jul 7, 2014 at 8:18 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi Karen,
Thanks for reading and commenting. Some of the concepts that I struggled with most during my education are also some of the concepts I understand best. We do learn from our struggles and mistakes! There is something to be said for wrestling with the material to gain a deeper understanding. If a parent who knows the answer is readily available and time is short, it is easy to see how a student would skip the struggling part.
That said, one of the most wonderful things my mother did with me was that she read (or probably reread) most of the books that I was assigned in English classes in high school. She was a passionate and insightful reader. I have fond memories of discussing literature with her, and I know it made a huge difference in my engagement with and enjoyment of those books. I never thought of her doing this, though, for my educational benefit or as help with my homework, it was just an activity and mutual interest we shared. Another example of how I never appreciated my parents enough!

Hi LJ,
Maybe keeping our own intellect in tact is the ulterior motive!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jul 7, 2014 at 9:26 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear happy medium,
Thanks for reading and commenting. I agree, this research is important reading for district administrators and teachers, and more research needs to be done to determine what type of parent involvement is effective.
Our kids have not found the middle school homework load to be onerous and we have rarely had to help with assignments. We have not insisted that they complete optional or extra credit math problems, though, which for our kids would have probably required parental help. Our kids have not had any tutoring in core subjects, although some of them have had interest in having music lessons or additional foreign language instruction, and they have had time for other extracurricular activities. We have not had personal experience with learning differences, though, I'd love to hear from readers who have. My thoughts would be that it might be particularly important for a student with learning differences that the parents were not helping extensively with homework, as the teacher needs to understand what the student can figure out and complete on their own. I would also hope that if homework is taking a lot longer than the grade level guidelines, that a teacher would be willing to modify assignments.

Posted by another parent, a resident of JLS Middle School,
on Jul 8, 2014 at 3:24 am

Good post, as usual. I want to add to this discussion that this latest research distinguishes direct parental involvement in individual children's homework, which doesn't help, from parental involvement where parents push to make schools better, which supposedly helps a lot.

To support Mother of 4's anecdote -- my middle schooler wanted to write a video game. He struggled at school with Flash with no help at all, and made very little progress. At some point, I talked him into trying something called Game Salad, a free program I knew about that was more accessible for someone his age, yet pretty powerful. The teacher said he could use it as long as he built everything himself and didn't use a template.

Again, he seemed pretty intimidated, so I found some Youtube videos, and sat there with him while he watched Youtube videos for a couple of hours on how to use the software. I, frankly, fell asleep and slept through most of it. But he seemed to need my presence, even though I was literally asleep. When I woke up, I stopped the videos and he got really upset, saying, But I don't remember all of it!! And that's when I could tell him, you don't need to, you just need to start using it now that you have a general idea.

He quickly knew how to use the program better than I did within a day, eventually with a friend, producing a maze video game with a mouse and deadly cats and poisonous hairballs, 15 levels, his own sound effects, compelling music, that we still play. After the videos, I really didn't help at all and had no involvement at all.

I think kids do still need a certain kind of support so they can do for themselves. I thought my kid learned a lot from learning how to code for himself, and the lessons would have been lost if he had continued to struggle with Flash with no guidance at all. (Perhaps he could have done as well with Flash if I'd gotten involved the same way, but we didn't have the program at home and GS was free.)

I'd like to play devil's advocate a little bit here -- I'm wondering if one interpretation is that HOMEWORK itself is not that helpful....

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jul 8, 2014 at 9:29 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi another parent,
Thanks for reading and commenting. The authors were also looking at one specific measure of achievement, test scores, so they did not assess other outcomes that might result from homework help. I think you might be on to something, though, with your questioning whether homework itself helps with academic achievement!

Posted by parent of students with learning differences, a resident of Professorville,
on Jul 8, 2014 at 9:47 am

Sally - thank you so much for all your entertaining and informative posts! I have 2 kids with learning differences who
went through Jordan and Paly. I agree that if a student can't complete their homework it should be a red flag for the teacher. If it takes significantly longer than the "grade appropriate guidelines" teachers should be willing to modify homework. In our experience neither happened. The elementary teachers were great about both things and made sure there was a balance between getting homework done that needed to be completed so they were prepared for the next day and letting things go that weren't required for real learning. We did find 4th and 5th grade to be filled with a lot of projects that really needed a lot of parental involvement (family histories, many events requiring costumes, lots of trips to the art supply and hardware store, games that required multiple family members to play, overnight field trips, etc. All fun, but very time consuming.)

Middle and high school were polar opposite from elementary school. Starting in 6th grade, if homework wasn't completed, it didn't matter why. The student was simply in trouble for not finishing the work, and in many cases spent most of their weekend time "making it up". If the homework took longer than was appropriate, there was no willingness to modify it, even with a 504 or IEP. (And if you have a child with ADD who is on medications, their meds wear off between 3-5 pm and that makes homework particularly challenging since they can no longer concentrate). In addition, starting in 7th or 8th grade, both my students were expected to approach the teacher to discuss the accommodations that were in their IEP or 504, even though IEP's are legal documents. Self-advocating is a great skill, but I even had teachers refuse to meet with me as a parent when requested to by the Principal and Counselor).

While parenting a child with learning difference is challenging anyway, our middle and high schools make it even more so. On the plus side, both my kids are now thriving, and their learning differences are now gifts, but it made their time in middle and high school pretty miserable.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jul 8, 2014 at 10:03 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear parent of students with learning differences,
Thanks for reading and sharing your kids' experiences. Yikes, it sounds pretty bleak, but it is good to know that your kids are doing well and now appreciating their unique capabilities. You must have put a lot of time and energy into building their confidence and affirming their efforts, despite the challenges they had with the homework load.

Posted by Concerned Mom, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Jul 8, 2014 at 10:38 am

My son has recently been using an iPhone app to work together with his friends on homework. The app basically lets my son and his friends virtually break an assignment into parts and each complete their piece. He claims that it is helping him learn as they all check each other's work and ensure accuracy. Indeed, his homework and test grades have risen sharply, however I'm not sure it is ethical!!! What should I do? The apps name is HuddleUp.

Posted by parent of students with learning differences, a resident of Professorville,
on Jul 8, 2014 at 11:54 am

Concerned mom - I think this depends on the expectations of your son's teachers. If they are expecting him to complete his homework on his own, working on the assignments with a group is cheating. If the teachers encourage collaboration or it is a group project, then it is ethical. My personal thought is that since this is how real world projects get done so it is a good skill to learn, but in an academic setting it would usually be considered cheating.

This is from the Paly Handbook, cheating is "Copying work assigned to be done independently or allowing someone else to copy one's own or another's work, including computer generated information and programs. Since individual teachers hold different expectations with regard to homework (i.e. some teachers encourage students to work together while other teachers may expect an assignment to be completed independently at home), it is the responsibility of the individual teacher to clarify to the student his/her expectations regarding individual assignments."

The whole Paly Academic Dishonesty section - Web Link

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