For many parents, assisting young children with their homework goes hand in hand with making sure kids eat their vegetables and go to bed on time. It’s what you do to help your children get the best start in life.
Of all the possible benefits this shared time might provide, however, a boost to those grades probably isn’t one of them.
Across two national datasets, covering students in public and private elementary schools, researchers from the US found no significant association between parental help with homework and a child’s math or reading achievements.
No matter how smart the adult or child, or their socioeconomic status, time spent slogging through that algebra together is unlikely to have a significant impact on a student’s academic results.
“As such, our findings put into question decades of encouragement of parental help with and control over homework,” the authors write.
The question of how much help a parent should provide with homework is one academics have debated in the past. The right attitude could infect children with a love of learning. Too much involvement might be more of a hindrance to test scores than a help.
Parents might not always love the work, either. Research suggests parents can perceive homework as a stressful endeavor, and that can create tension and pressure at home.
Sometimes, if there is a time crunch, parents might simply provide the answers for their kids.
Most of these studies focused on middle school- and high school-aged children, but kids in elementary school are at a particularly important stage of development where homework could have a much bigger impact, either negative or positive.
As such, researchers have tried to determine how younger children, between grades 1 and 5, handle parental help with their homework.
To do this, the authors used national datasets from 1997 to 1998, and 2011. Unlike previous studies, they also took into account variables like socioeconomic status and parental education when analyzing their results.
Even when considering the level and intensity of parental homework help, the team found no effect.
The authors can’t be sure why that is, but they have a few explanations.
It could be, for instance, that the stress of the home is not conducive to learning. Or perhaps it’s because parents are doing most of the work, instead of teaching their kids how to think on their own.
After all, parents are not trained like teachers to bestow reading and math knowledge on the next generation.
“The kids don’t get to experience struggling,” explains education policy researcher Katerina Bodovski from Pennsylvania State University.
“Elementary school is about the growth in knowledge but even more so in a child’s skills and habits.”
High expectations can also hamper a kid’s learning. If a child feels like their parent is breathing down their neck, that could add unnecessary pressure to the whole situation. A teacher that is busy with other kids, meanwhile, is less likely to intimidate.
This doesn’t necessarily mean helping children do their homework has no benefits at all, as the study did not differentiate between types of parent help and only looked at what impact it had on academic achievement. It could, for example, in some cases lead to parents spending more time with their children, which may be beneficial for things outside academia, like their mental health.
Reports from childrens’ perspectives have suggested parental support and confidence are associated with higher achievement, so the team points out there’s a need to distinguish between different types of parental homework help.
Teaching responsibility in 2020 suddenly became a strange balance between teacher and parent, and help at home was probably a key factor in successful remote learning.
“COVID made potential parental involvement in school an imposed homeschool situation,” says Bodovski.
“That is very different from parental help with homework when their child attends regular school.”
Nevertheless, the authors suggest educators and policymakers rethink their homework suggestions for the future. Asking parents to help out may not be the best way to teach the next generation.
The study was published in the Journal of Research in Childhood Education.