I'm an involved dad and I often help my kids with their homework. Sometimes, in the interests of speeding things along, I give them the answers. Over the past year, both kids (eleven and nine) are coming to me more often, asking for help even when I know they don't need it. I tell them to figure it out, they whine, and eventually I give in to the pressure. How can I get them to start doing their work by themselves?
It's great that you're an involved dad — and it's great that you're taking an active role in your kids' education. But by doing their homework for them (let's be honest — that's exactly what's happening), you're undermining their ability to learn good study habits. What's far worse is that you're sending them the very clear message that you don't think they're smart enough to do their own work. And from what you say, they're starting to believe you.
So the question you asked — about how can you get the kids to start doing their work by themselves — is the wrong one. The real issue is: How (and when) are you going to stop caving when they ask for help that you acknowledge they don't really need?
The answer is pretty simple: You need to stop cold turkey and you need to do it now. If it makes you feel any better, you're far from alone. Various studies I've looked at have found that somewhere between a quarter and half of parents do their kids' homework for them. I saw this firsthand late one evening when I went to visit some friends. Their seventh grader had already gone to bed, but mom and dad were still up trying to put together his science-fair project, which was due the next morning. And I saw it a lot when grading papers at my daughters' elementary school. I'd say that at least a quarter of them had be written by adults. When I pointed it out to the teachers, they always shrugged and said the parents denied having done the work.
Instead of answers, what your children need when they have trouble grasping something is understanding and support. Ask them questions. What is the actual assignment? What, exactly, don't they understand? For some kids, the problem is overload. They can do one problem at a time, but the prospect of having to do twenty is paralyzing. In cases like that, divide the assignment into smaller, more manageable chunks. Take a short break after each chunk and then get back to it.
If one of the kids truly doesn't understand something or simply isn't able to keep up with the work, talk to the teacher. He or she may be able to give the child some extra attention or some remedial work to get up to speed.
Now that you're no longer in the business of doing homework for your kids, you're going to have to get tough. That means cancelling playdates and weekend fun until the kids start doing what they're supposed to do.
But your biggest challenge is going to be to let your children fail. Sounds harsh, but if you're confident that they can do the work, a bad grade can be a real wake-up call. It won't be easy. But don't give in. Minor failures will help your children rebuild their confidence in themselves. And that's the best thing you can possibly do for them.
Armin Brott, an Oakland resident, brings a male perspective to parenting in his weekly syndicated column called "Ask Mr. Dad." If you have a question for him or one of our other parenting columnists, email Express editor Robert Gammon at Robert.Gammon@EastBayExpress.com. Brott's columns will appear in Kid You Not once a month.