Homework Help, or Homework Hurt?

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Bedtime Math A Fun Excuse To Stay Up Late (Macmillan Children's), by Laura Overdeck and Jim Paillot

I’m taking part in a blog tour today with Laura Overdeck, author of Bedtime Math: A Fun Excuse To Stay Up Late (review). Basically, I asked her a couple of questions and she sent me an elegant essay. I was not compensated for posting her answer. I’m just sharing because I think her post is helpful to other parents too. Here’s what I asked her:

  • How much help should parents give their child on their homework?
  • Should parents double check their kids’ math homework? My wife thinks I should double check their work. But I don’t think I should because they should be able to do this on their own. Double checking is a skill they need to learn. I can’t double check their tests at school.

Laura Overdeck, author of Bedtime Math: A Fun Excuse To Stay Up Late

As our country struggles with its weak performance in math and science — and right when demand for technical skills is skyrocketing — we’ve focused on schools and what they’re “doing wrong.” My sense is that we can’t lay all the blame on schools, because we parents are just as much a part of the equation. Countless studies have shown how home environment has an enormous effect on kids’ eventual performance in school, and how early math skills are actually the strongest predictor of future academic success, including eventual reading skills!

Our approach to math in my house is largely based on a fantastic speech a teacher gave at a conference a few years ago. He said that when students get stumped on a question, the minute you show weakness and tell them the answer, you’ve signaled to them that you don’t think they can do it. No matter how kind your intention, you’re essentially saying, “I don’t believe in you. I have to save you.” His policy was that he never, ever gives the answer outright to any question, or even hints. Obviously this assumes the questions are of appropriate difficulty for the crowd. But the most this teacher will do is ask a thought-provoking question that will steer kids onto the right track. No hints, no answers.

We have found this approach immensely helpful at home. As background, I’m the author of Bedtime Math, a book whose mission is to make daily math as fun and playful for kids as the bedtime story. It began as a daily blog, which now over 40,000 people read and solve with their kids. But that blog grew out of our own routine at home, as my husband and I have always done zany math problems with our three kids at storytime at night. We found quickly that the “don’t give the answer” policy is very motivating and self-esteem-building. Our kids know, with 100% certainty, that we believe they’re great at math. When we give them the nightly math problem, the kids dive in because they now know we won’t let them off the hook! And they relish this challenge.

Now that my kids have reached school age, we’ve held with the same policy. When they hit a speed bump on their homework and ask a question, we might take three steps back and review the general methodology they should use, but we really try to avoid using the exact numbers from the questions to be solved. We let them take the lesson and apply it themselves, with plenty of encouragement. While we sometimes remind them to double-check their work, we take pains not to double-check it ourselves, as we feel they need to take on this responsibility. After all, some day when they work at a job, their parents won’t be there to catch their mistakes. Also, because the kids have grown up to believe they’re good at math, when they get answers wrong on their homework they’re very motivated not to let it happen again. And finally, my feeling is that after doing 18 years of homework myself, I’ve fulfilled my quota. :)

Surely other parents have wide-ranging philosophies about homework, and since I haven’t tried out any other methods, I can’t speak to whether they work. I can only share that the method my husband and I use does seem to work. What I would offer is that no matter your approach to homework, it’s important to be consistent with it. Just as a dike with a leak in it might as well not be there at all, the occasional loophole breaks down whatever benefits your method yields for your kids. In short, stick to your guns and show a lot of love along the way!

More info: Bedtime Math: A Fun Excuse To Stay Up Late (Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, 2013)

Here are some other blogs in the Laura Overdeck (Bedtime Math) tour:

2 thoughts on “Homework Help, or Homework Hurt?

  1. Great post. I think it is our jobs as parents to be there if the need help. But in my mind help is asking open ended questions. We never just give them the answer. We may ask if there is another way to get the answer or what happens if you do this or that. This way seems to work for our kids.

  2. Great post! Our kids are tween/teens and I have always struggled with this issue. My youngest son is one of those who wants us to constantly stand over him and help him through his homework. I think he needs to work more independently but it is hard for him to stay on task if we leave him on his own.

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