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How Much To Help With Homework?

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Dr Laura,
With the start of school, the struggle to do homework has begun. My oldest daughter is in 2nd grade and the homework is minimal right now. I have read the instructions from her teacher, telling her that her teacher expects them to do their homework on their own and the parents check it. She will not listen.

Just this morning she was filling in her Reading Journal and she is asking me to tell her the letters in the author's name. Is she just too lazy to look at the book for herself? Is she just wanting my undivided attention? Does this have to do with maturity?

This becomes a yelling session for doesn't help that I am pregnant too. I am so frustrated and I want her to want to do her homework and "like" school.

I know I could do a reward chart of some sort but for whatever reason those do not seem to last with my daughter. Everything is a negotiation with her. What I can do to make this easier?


I hear your frustration. It feels to you like your daughter should be able to handle her homework and just have you check it, and you can't understand why she's asking you for so much help.

There is a wide range of how independent a second grader is in doing homework. You are right that this is partly a maturity issue, but it is not at all unusual for second graders to need parents to provide a lot of hand-holding and structure. 

I hear that the teacher wants the child to "do" the homework and then have the parents check it. Obviously, you shouldn't do the homework for your daughter. If you observe your daughter, though, you may well see that she needs your help to begin, to stay focused, to understand the directions, to organize the work, etc.

Many young kids need fairly constant interaction with parents while they complete their homework, not to "do" it, but to keep them on track. Some kids seem to need the parents' "embrace" verbally as they work just to sustain them while they do these new and not always pleasant tasks. Most likely the parent's presence soothes the child's anxiety, giving them an anchor while they venture into a demanding new realm. This helps the child use their higher level executive functions to stay on track.

I always advise parents to sit near their children during homework time, doing paperwork of their own. If you need to tend to other children or make dinner, it is best to set up homework time in the kitchen near you. My teenagers still do their homework in our family room, so that as I make dinner, I am in the same room with them. While they are now very self-disciplined and manage their own work, I am happy to be available if they want to ask me a question, have me read over a paper, or simply because my presence helps keep them focused on their work instead of succumbing to the lure of social media or incoming cell phone texts.

So offering structure and support is definitely an appropriate way for parents to support kids of all ages in doing their homework. That does not mean doing the work for them. If your child has difficulty in understanding the material, you can certainly work with her on it, but in that case it is also a good idea to let the teacher know what you're seeing so she can be sure your child is learning at school.

You asked specifically about spelling the author's name for your child. It certainly seems a simple task that shouldn't require parental help: looking at the spine of the book, and writing the name in her reading journal. But of course for her, it probably is laborious, one letter at a time. Before they are skilled in the mechanics of writing, it's hard for many kids to maintain the flow of their thoughts while they write. If they also have to struggle with spelling, writing becomes a chore, which is not a desirable outcome. If she feels like writing is difficult, she will do as little as possible of it, and of course what you want is for her to love reading and writing so much that she can't wait to get to her reading journal. Feeling positively about her homework is an important part of your daughter's enjoying school, which is what we all want for our kids.

In this case, it isn't a test to see if she can spell the author's name, so there is certainly nothing wrong with helping your child to spell the name of the author, especially when she is so young. I know it seems like she could do it herself, and I know that many experts advise you not to do anything your child could do herself. But when we help our kids in little ways that they specifically solicit, it is clear to them that we love caring for them, and they internalize that feeling of being loved, and of having backup to help them when things feel tough. That lays the foundation for knowing that she can tackle obstacles, because we are there if she needs support. 

I'm not saying that we should bend over backwards to do things for our kids that they can do for themselves. I am saying that if your daughter asks you for help with something that you can easily help her with, it is good for your relationship, and actually helpful to her development, for you to extend the help rather than refuse.

Of course, there are limits. If you didn't know the author's name, and had to walk across the room to look at it, then you can't help her easily, and you would just tell your daughter that (kindly of course). It would be harder for her to look at it and write it than to have your help, but no big deal, and she certainly wouldn't expect you to walk across the room to look at it when it was in front of her. That presumes, though, that she has a full cup emotionally.

If she doesn't, she might have a meltdown when you kindly tell her you can't help her with this task at this moment. If she has a meltdown, that's good -- she's showing you the accumulated tension around homework, or around whether you're really available to meet her needs, or maybe around something we don't even know about, like what happened on the playground at school. Summon up your compassion, hold her while she cries, and tell her you are always there for her and she is safe. When she's done crying, she'll either fall asleep (in which case sleep is what she most needed at that moment) or more likely, she'll be relaxed and happier, able to tackle her homework with renewed fortitude. Sometimes we all need a good cry to let out our worries, so we feel stronger and more resourceful.

I hear how frustrated you are. I am also hearing that your daughter needs a lot from you. I suspect that being pregnant while mothering two children makes you wish that your oldest was more mature than she actually is. Seven year olds still need a lot of "holding" from their parents -- not just physically, but also psychologically. If she is not getting as much as she needs (and every child is different), then she will almost certainly extract it from you in other ways, such as in this homework encounter you describe.

I realize that you may be frustrated with the level of her need, and sometimes it may take all of your willpower to control your impatience and breathe deeply instead of yelling. But it really does matter, because for you to respond by yelling at her about her homework backfires completely, as I suspect you know. It certainly doesn't leave her with a positive association about her schoolwork.

But more importantly, it ratchets up the likelihood that your daughter will continue to needle you for attention. Researchers have found that every negative interaction in a relationship requires five very positive interactions to set things right again, so every time we yell at our kids we throw the relationship out of whack for awhile and give ourselves lots more work!

Being pregnant with two young children is no picnic. But our kids' appropriate developmental needs don't go away just because we get pregnant again. Your daughter will continue to mature, thank goodness, and she will eventually do her homework completely by herself. But that will be in high school, and even then you will need to ask appropriate questions, like "How's your homework situation tonight? How's your paper going for History class?"

So your daughter will need plenty of support and empathy from you for the next five years, as will your middle child, while you also have a new little one. These next five years will shape your daughter's entire future, because after this you'll have much less input into her homework, and the peer group will have much more influence than you do on most aspects of her life. At that point, repairing these rifts in your relationship will get a lot harder, so this is the time to strengthen your relationship.

If you'll allow me to offer you a prescription, I would like to suggest that you find a way to put your own self-care on the front burner a bit more. What matters in parenting is not so much what we do, but how we make our kids feel about themselves. And we can't make them feel good about themselves if we don't love caring for them. And that is pretty hard to do if we don't make sure to care well for ourselves. 

Do whatever you need to in the way of self-care on an ongoing basis so that you regularly replenish your own internal resources. You'll need them to be the parent you want to be in the months ahead!

Blessings to you and your children,
Dr. Laura

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