The Case for Nagging Kids About Their Homework

The backlash against "helicopter parenting" may have gone too far.
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A fifth-grade student at California's Halecrest Elementary School holds his head as a teacher goes over his test scores with his parents. (Denis Poroy/AP Photo)

The helicopter parent has crashed and burned.  With millennials reaching adulthood it has become clear that this hovering style of parenting results in overly dependent young adults, plagued by depression or less satisfaction with their lives and anxiety, who cannot even face the workplace without the handholding their parents have led them to expect.  The literature is now replete with indictments of over parenting and the havoc it creates. In her book Slouching Toward Adulthood, Sally Koslow documented a generation so cosseted that they have lost the impetus to grow up or leave home.  The over-involved parent has gone from paragon of caring to a figure of fun.  

The pendulum has swung, and as is so often the case, it may have over reached its mark.  Parenting pundits now argue for the benefits of natural consequences, for letting the world take it toll on kids as method of teaching them grit and life’s necessary coping skills.  Failure has become the new success.

Time captured this zeitgeist with a cover story in which editor-in-chief Nancy Gibbs explained:

Less is more; hovering is dangerous; failure is fruitful. You really want your children to succeed? Learn when to leave them alone. When you lighten up, they'll fly higher. We're often the ones who hold them down. 

This thinking was a reaction to a generation of hovering parents who cleared the way and smoothed over life’s bumps, who metaphorically swaddled their children in bubble wrap.  But the reaction to this unfortunate method of parenting has perhaps been an over-reaction.

The antidote to heavy-handed parenting is not hands-off parenting. There is not a stark choice between doing things for our children and thereby disabling them, and leaving them to tackle challenges on their own.  The middle ground, hands-on parenting, involves neither spoiling a child by clearing their path for them, nor stepping away and watching them fail.

Even as the parenting tide was turning away from helicopter moms and dads, there was a problem with the newfound orthodoxy.  Less engaged parenting isn’t always better, and in the realm of education, an involved parent leads to better outcomes.  As Gibbs noted in her Time story,

Many educators have been searching for ways to tell parents when to back off. It's a tricky line to walk, since studies link parents' engagement in a child's education to better grades, higher test scores, less substance abuse and better college outcomes.  

In a recent New York Times post, educators were asked how parents should cope with an underperforming teen, one who has previously shown ability but has become unmotivated and indifferent. Jessica Lahey, the teacher/author (and regular Atlantic contributor) who wrote the piece, acknowledges that this is the most frequent and difficult question that parents pose to educators. In this case the student in question is in ninth grade and struggling through the difficult transition to the increased demands of high school.

Making students care about school enough to give their best effort is an intractable problem for both parents and teachers. Research shows that many diligent, good students find a sharp fall off in motivation in the middle-school years.

Part of this is a decline in their desire to please their parents and teachers, and part is an increase in the distractions in their lives.  For some students the step up to high school from middle school is a tough adjustment requiring study and organizational skills the student does not yet possess. For others, dating, the freedom that comes with driving, and their expanded social life simply prove too difficult to balance with schoolwork. Teachers and parents can find themselves at a loss when trying to reengage otherwise capable students who are underperforming in the classroom.  

The educators who weighed in on the New York Times piece were unanimous in their advice.  Back off, they urged: Despite a decline in attitude and performance in a student, increased parental involvement is not what was called for. One teacher argued for keeping positive and focusing praise on what effort is evident rather than what is not being accomplished. A professor suggested that parents find out where their student’s interests lay and that they should otherwise not get involved. The sensible argument was made that teens need to find their own motivation and that parents should back off because there will be consequences at school for poor academic performance.   

This measured, considered advice is very much in keeping with the times, a reaction to the over-involvement that was recommended a decade earlier.  The experts argue convincingly that parents should not smooth over their child's failures, that they should not make what is wrong right.  

This all presumes, however, that the consequences of performing poorly in school will be adequate, timely, and effective in convincing a child to change his or her behavior.  It presumes that parental involvement will decrease a teen’s sense of personal responsibility, rather than heightening it. And finally it presumes that schools are teaching all the skills needed to succeed in the classroom, alongside the substance of the curriculum.

If the fallout from doing poorly in school were not so long-lasting, then letting teens find their way would set them up for adulthood.  But that is not the case. If in the face of underperformance, parents focus on our children’s successes, seek out their passions, reward them with life’s luxuries, and allow the school to deal with the consequences, we have let our children down.  

There are few lives that are not enhanced by doing as well as possible in high school.  For kids headed on an academic path, doing well creates more post-secondary school options.  For teens headed into the workplace, a degree opens more doors.

Some kids find true passion in the classroom, but for many the prescribed course load is filled with subjects that are uninteresting at best. It does not matter.  As parents it is our job to teach our children that liking something or not liking something is an unacceptable excuse for doing poorly.  Adulthood is filled with responsibilities we would all prefer to shed, but performing at a substandard level is rarely the best option. A parent’s job is to show our kids how sometimes you work hard at something that does not call to you because that is the right thing to do.

There is, I believe, a tacit understanding between parents and their teens that may need to be made explicit. Parents are willing to work hard, to sacrifice for our kids, and to give them opportunities in life. We will drive them to baseball; we will rent them musical instruments and invest in the technology they so crave. We will give them love and encouragement, and to the best of our abilities, a stable environment in which to grow.  In exchange, children are expected to do their best. Not necessarily top of the class or best on the team…but their best. If teens don’t feel like living up to this deal, there are consequences.

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Lisa Endlich Heffernan is a stay-at-home mother, a volunteer, and the author of Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success and Be the Change. She lives in New York and writes regularly at Grown and Flown.

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