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When Helping Your Kids in School is the Wrong Answer

photo(12)I remember getting called out during that parent-teacher conference like it was yesterday.

“He has a lot of trouble working independently. Do you help him with his homework?” Boy Wonder’s fourth grade teacher asked.

“Well, yes. It’s the only way I can be sure he’ll get it done.” I sheepishly admitted.

“You need to stop. By fourth grade, kids need to know how to follow directions and work on their own. This shift really needed to happen last year,” she schooled me.

“Oh, um. I didn’t know. I thought helping him was a good thing.” I muttered under the weight of her judgy stare.

“It’s not,” she warned, “if he has a specific question, you should be available to help, but you shouldn’t sit there and do his work with him. No one does that for him in the classroom. How long do you spend a night on homework?” she asked.

“A long time. Two, sometimes even three hours.”

“It’s not supposed to be that way. I can tell from his behavior that he’s not paying attention in class. It’s clear to me now that he thinks he doesn’t have to because Mom will teach him what he missed and help him do his homework.” BURN. Man, did that hurt … probably because she was right.

I left the conference more discouraged than ever. Here I thought I was doing a good thing, the right thing even. How could I stop helping my son when his grades were hurting? When he needed me most? I had the best of intentions when it came to helping him with what he didn’t seem to understand in school. I thought pouring my time and attention into his education would improve his grades, and maybe even make school more enjoyable for him — for all of us.

I only wish I’d known what new research has discovered about the role of parental involvement in their kids’ academic achievement. Recent study findings published in The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement With Children’s Education determined that the majority of parental involvement activities did little to ensure children’s future academic success. In fact, some well-intentioned efforts caused more harm than good, according to The Atlantic.

Apparently that’s where I was at, doing more harm than good. If my kid was ever to succeed — or even squeak by — I was going to have to take a colossal step back.

So I did just that. Believe me when I tell you that doing nothing was one of the hardest things I ever had to do (or not do). After all, dedication to our children’s education is deeply engrained in our parental consciousness. What kind of parent was I if not intimately involved in the daily facets of his educational journey? I wasn’t sure.

But that afternoon, I explained to Boy Wonder why I needed to step away from his homework. I advised that if he paid closer attention in school, his homework would be easier. I believed that, considering he was always whip smart, yet hella lazy. He cracked open his math book, stared at its contents for about five minutes, got mad and slammed it shut, proclaiming he wasn’t going to do his homework that day. And I … let him.

Oh my God, he’s going to fail fourth grade.

Day two: déjÝ  vu. Got mad, slammed book, refused to do his homework. I let him.

Oh my God, he’s going to fail fourth grade.

Day three: refused. I let him.

Oh my God, he’s going to fail fourth grade.

Day four: the teacher called me. We talked at length about what was going on. She told me to stick with it and that she’d talk to him. She assured me that his grades were going to get worse before they’d get better. While I trusted her, it was he I had trouble trusting.

The following Monday, Boy Wonder completed two homework assignments on his own and slammed his book on the other two he didn’t understand. I let him. By the following day, he had completed all of his homework assignments (under heavy protest and utter indifference, of course). “Mom, I did it all, but it’s like, wrong, so whatever.”

“At least he did it.” I told myself. Progress … I hoped.

His grades were slipping and if we ever thought he hated school before, now it was undeniable. His classroom had transformed from a place of ill-mannered fun to a place of intention. A place where he was expected to pay attention, take notes, and (gasp!) learn. It was Boy Wonder against the fourth grade and by the end of the second trimester, it looked like fourth grade was going to win.

At what point was I supposed to step in and do something — anything — to help? I wasn’t sure. His teacher assured me that she’d seen a vast improvement in his attention and subsequently, his behavior. She believed that his grades would follow; he’d just have to want them.

I sat down with Boy Wonder, second trimester report card in hand, and asked him to read me his grades. “I don’t want to,” he told me. When I asked him why, he said it was because he wasn’t proud of them. I told him that while I wasn’t particularly proud of his grades, I was proud of his improvements within the classroom. “I want to do better, Mom. I want to pass fourth grade with my friends.” he said.

“Awesome! I want that for you too, then. How are you going to get there?” I asked.

“By talking to my teacher and trying harder.” he said.

Bingo. He finally wanted it. And if I knew this kid, getting out of his own way would be three-quarters of the battle.

I’m happy to report that by the end of the third trimester, Boy Wonder had managed to inch his way onto the Silver Honor Roll.

His teacher was right. Not only did my son need to develop and practice skills for independent learning, he needed to take a measure of responsibility for his education. And that, my friends, is something no parent can do for their kids.

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