Alex struggled to focus in class. He found writing a paragraph unaided a stretch, and, as his Year 8 English teacher, I had to explain simple things to him time and again. Yet when he handed in his homework assignments, they were strangely beautiful. How, I wondered, could this pupil who showed so little ability in the classroom turn around such polished pieces of prose on his own at home?
I didn’t ponder this for long. So great was the disconnect between his classwork and homework, it soon became apparent what was going on: the main author of the homework was not Alex at all, but one of his parents.
A recent study found parents in Britain spend less time helping with homework, school projects and extra study than those in almost any other country. According to the survey by the Varkey Foundation, an educational charity, which questioned more than 30,000 parents of children aged four to 18 in 29 countries, parents here devote only 3.6 hours per week to it, compared to nearly eight hours in Russia, 10 in Vietnam and more than 12 in India.
I learned this with some surprise because, in my experience of teaching English at an independent boys’ secondary school in the south of England, excessive involvement in their children’s homework is the guilty secret of many a parent. At parents’ evenings, those you suspect of giving the biggest helping hand confirm your suspicions with their behaviour. They’ll often be the parents who bombard you with questions about what we’re studying and what is coming up; the intense ones who hang on to your every word, or else constantly butt in with queries. If I mention there’s an area in which their child could improve, they’ll want to know how they can deal with it immediately.
One of my Year 9 pupils, James, has special educational needs, yet his homework is improbably good. I’d love to think he completes it all himself, but I know in my heart it’s not possible.
Then there are the children whose homework is so perfectly punctuated, you’d never suspect they had a problem with grammar.
The most problematic parents I’ve dealt with are the stay-at-home mums and dads who’ve been “helicopter-parenting” their children. One such father disagreed with some feedback I’d given about his son’s creative writing. Clearly, he implied, I did not understand the brilliance of his child’s work. When I stood my ground, he took umbrage. Had he had a hand in writing the composition himself, it would explain why he didn’t like me criticising his work.
But what, as a teacher, can you do about all this? You don’t want to ruin your relationship with the pupil – or their parents – by calling them out. After all, to do so would be to imply you do not think the child capable of such excellent work. Instead, I explain why the work deserves praise, in the hope they will at least derive some benefit from it.
Of course many parents want to help, and this is to be encouraged. But research suggests that giving your child too much help could in fact have the opposite effect, hindering their skills development and leading them to feel incompetent.
What I’d advise is please, for their sakes, let your children do their own homework – then ask them open questions, such as “What do you think is missing here?” Parents can be a fantastic help, but not if they feed their children all the answers. Guide them, by all means; just don’t do it for them.
They may have the purest of motives: they want the very best for their children – who doesn’t? It’s human nature to want to save your kids from failure, and as teachers we too agonise over how much support is the right amount. But when parents offer too much hand-holding, they are doing their children a great disservice. In depriving them of agency, they are denying them independence and often, without meaning to, knocking their confidence. The result is that the children come to believe they need their parents on hand the whole time, and feel they can’t cope without them. Instead, they should be finding their own style and making their own way. Only then will they later be able to handle what the real world has to throw at them.
It’s easy to feel bad for the children who have tried their hardest – on their own – and produced inferior work to those whose parents have been closely involved. But in the long run, it’s the first group who have learned more. Perhaps those whose own efforts didn’t score top marks are the lucky ones.