Recently I went to my son Javier’s class picnic where parents showed up with blankets and lunches, so we could enjoy the first taste of spring together with our kids. After the first five minutes, the kids had gobbled their lunches and were running around the park playing tag, leaving the parents to talk among ourselves.
In other words, my kid barely noticed I was there.
A new book, The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement with Children’s Education, says getting uber-involved with kids’ school activities, whether that’s rearranging your day so you can show up for the class picnic or simply helping them with their homework, is not doing your offspring any good. Researchers combed through almost 30 years’ worth of data to study how parental involvement affects academic achievement and found that too much of it could actually harm kids’ chances of achieving success.
My son, Javier, is eight and only in second grade. Besides killing myself to show up for every class party, I help him with his homework every night. It’s mostly math homework, with the focus on basic addition and subtraction. There’s really no reason Javier shouldn’t be able to do his homework on his own every night. It’s material he has already been taught in school, and it’s appropriate for his grade level. In fact there are probably countries where kids are mastering this stuff in kindergarten. So why do I walk him through it every night? What exactly am I worried about? That he might—gasp—turn in a wrong answer? Would that really be such a bad thing?
There are certainly reasons to help kids with their schoolwork beyond getting good grades. I help my son in part because I see it as an opportunity to bond. To be perfectly honest, it makes me feel like a better parent. There is nothing wrong with that, but somewhere along the line I got the message that if I don’t involve myself in as much of my son’s schoolwork as possible, he will grow up to be an irresponsible misfit, and there’s a whole lot of research that proves this to be false.
When I was a kid my mother did not help me with my homework. No one in my family did. I grew up in a home with two full-time working parents who saw my brother and me at dinnertime and on weekends. They did not go to after-school plays, nor did they chaperone field trips. I don’t even remember them asking us much about school, at least not the way I ask my son every day on our drive home. Somehow I managed to grow up to be an educated, productive member of society, and to be honest, I don’t think any less of my mother because she didn’t walk me through my multiplication tables.
So why is every mother I know today, myself included, killing herself to be at every class party, to volunteer at every school function and to help with homework and school projects? We are sitting in traffic, rearranging our schedules and dodging our bosses in order to make it to everything we possibly can, and it turns out that may not be the best thing for our kids after all.
Last night I went into homework hour with my son with a new approach. Instead of rolling up my sleeves and diving in alongside him, I asked if he needed my help. To my surprise, he declined my offer, with the caveat that he would call me if he got stuck. Just like that, I was free! Free to make dinner, or check email, or do a little work of my own if I wanted, and he was free to make mistakes, hopefully ones he could learn from. All this time I thought I was doing the right thing by sticking my nose into his homework and every other piece of his school life, and he would have probably preferred I not.
It turns out my son had more confidence in himself than I did, and that’s not just eye-opening, it’s a little embarrassing. From now on I’m vowing to step back and let Javier figure things out for himself. It’s not like I’m going to college with him. He needs to know what it feels like to earn a bad grade if he’s ever going to prize the feeling of earning good ones. After all, the only success that truly matters is the one he earns himself.
As far as class parties and picnics go, I will happily attend whatever I can. I love seeing his face light up when he first catches my eye as I walk in the room, and while these visits may not amount to advanced academic achievement, they certainly make lots of beautiful memories. But I’m no longer going to move heaven and earth to attend every event.
Javier is growing up, and so am I. He knows where to find me—if he needs me.
This story first appeared in Parade.