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.

Teens want phones and TV, friends to come over, and to be driven to dances. They want their favorite foods from the grocery store. They want new cleats or skates. They want to go to the movies with friends. The single worst thing that we could teach them is that they can have any of these things if they do not make good on their half of the bargain. So while it may be tempting to attribute a poor performance in school to the vagaries of adolescence we do our children no favors to teach them that they will get something for nothing.  

While the notion of natural consequences is an enticing one, it can be an unrealistic expectation.  How many schools are going to intervene when kids are giving 50 percent effort and getting by with passing grades? What are those consequences? An astute teacher might express disappointment, and offer the encouragement that she is really expecting more. An advisor might make it clear that honors classes will become out of reach, or that remedial classes are in the offing. But these are hardly consequences to a student who has discovered that Facebook is more interesting than physics.

Waiting for natural consequences may mean waiting until the situation is grim and even then, a shortsighted teen may fail to respond appropriately. Some will come around, others will delude themselves into thinking they have the situation under control right up until the moment that they find out that they don’t. Teens live in the here and now and often underestimate the time and effort an unpleasant task requires.

Students thrive when they feel they can master the task they are given, when they see the purpose of that task, when they are engaged in the work and when they get positive feedback from peers, teachers, or parents for their efforts.

Creating these conditions, and cultivating the motivation that will follow, may well require parental intervention. When teens begin to struggle in school, that is the moment for parents to become more attuned to their child's academic life, it is the point at which they should step up, not step back.

Parents might need to help students with their review by quizzing them, helping them to find online educational resources or by encouraging them to seek out the teacher or a tutor.  Parents may need to remove distractions, provide incentives or reinforce family expectations. Much of the social cred that came from doing well in school has faded by high school.  But one thing that does not change is some need for approval from parents.  Teens may play tough but are not entirely indifferent to the values in their homes and the friction that is incurred from ignoring those values.

While it is easy for adults to see the direct link between academic success and increased opportunity, those dots need to be connected again and again for teens who are naive about the world of work and higher education.  Nancy Hill of the Harvard Graduate School of Education found in a study of over 50,000 students that relating academic achievement to life’s later goals is one of the most effective thing parents can do to help their teens.

Although the study showed that parents’ involvement in school events still had a positive effect on adolescents’ achievement, it did not rank as highly as parents conveying the importance of academic performance, relating educational goals to occupational aspirations, and discussing learning strategies.

Poor performance in high school has its consequences in life and, while a teen may know this intellectually, they may choose to ignore it. Many high-school kids struggle because of their lack of organizational skills. While they may be capable of mastering the material, they underestimate the amount of time required, the careful notes that need to be taken or importance of test preparation or homework assignments. These are skills that can be taught, and reinforced by a parent. They are essential skills that will be needed in any academic or employment situation.

But this involves closer monitoring by parents, rather than stepping away. It involves parents saying, “How much homework do you have?” Here there will be a long pause. “How much time will that take? When are things due? What is your schedule for getting that done given your other time commitments?” Parents can model the executive function thinking that teens can lack, showing them the thinking process that leads to accomplishing tasks in a timely manner. 

Many educators suggest that these types of questions are nagging, and taking responsibility for something that should be on the shoulders of the child.  As a parent, I have taken a different approach, believing that teens struggle in school because of the challenges posed organization, time management, and deferred gratification and that it is our job to help teach them these large life skills before sending them out into the world.  

At one point, with a son who was underperforming in high school, I mounted a large white board over his desk. Every day after school he had to write down every task that he faced and then erase each one upon completion. This served the dual purpose of keeping me informed (without daily nagging) of how much work he faced and where he was in terms of completing it and he had to stare at this oversized to-do list on the wall above his computer. No progress on the list? No car keys, no Netflix, no computer time, and eventually no cell phone. In my very small, very unscientific study I have determined that a teen will do almost anything for a cell phone.  

The argument against this internationalist approach is that it cannot be sustained, that working hard at something that is painful or boring because your parents are making you, is not a lifelong strategy for success.  It could be argued that parents setting up extrinsic motivation will let a kid down once his life begins to separate further from that of his parents.  Here is the good news. High school only last four years, and it is nothing like the rest of life.  As soon as kids arrive at college, they are given some choice about classes, teachers, their schedule and the direction of their lives.  If they pass into the working world, there is some choice there as well.  By demanding that they do their best for four years in the face of the protests we will hopefully have taught them the value of delayed gratification, self-control, and fulfilling their responsibility. And in doing that, as parents, we will have done our job.

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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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