Hassle-Free Homework: Parents Mean Well But Often Do Harm

Dear Dr. Fournier:

School has started and after only a couple of weeks, my son is having trouble with homework. I do not want my wife and I to get into last year’s shouting matches with him. It seems like every time I try and help him, he gets angry and defensive. What can we do to get our son to let us help him with his homework?

James C.

Austin, TX

Dr. Yvonne Fournier
Dr. Yvonne Fournier

Dear James:

Many parents have heard their children in frustration say this about homework, “I don’t know how to do it!”

The natural inclination of parents is to respond this way: “Then let me help you do it.”

Unfortunately, this leads many parents to cross the line of parenting into teaching. Instead of feeling helped, many children feel alone, intimidated and, finally, humiliated.

James’ went on to write that his son Jeff had just started learning fractions. Jeff’s teacher assigned 20 problems for homework. Jeff tried to figure out from his notes how to do fractions and recall the teacher’s explanations, but it just didn’t make sense to him.

When Jeff called on his dad, James looked at the assignment and said, “Fractions? Oh, wow. That’s easy!”


And the problems were indeed easy for James. He had learned them years ago and had his unique way of understanding the concept of fractions. That’s the way James decided he was going to teach it to his son.

For Jeff, his father’s explanation was like starting all over again. He tried to listen and do what his dad said, but it didn’t work. The more James explained, the less Jeff could listen and the angrier he got at his dad.

When Jeff asked for help, James needed to make this crucial distinction: Is my son ready to learn or does he need more teaching?

Instead, James confused his role as a parent with the role of a teacher. It is the parents’ job to develop the skills of responsibility in their children – skills that lead to responsible actions. But developing responsibility and teaching can be two different things.


When parents respond to that often-heard cry, “I don’t know how to do it,” they must be mindful of their own responsibility – to make the important distinction between learning and teaching.

Parents must realize that just because a child has been taught, it does not follow that the child has yet learned, or actually taken ownership of knowledge. Some children have been taught enough that minimal additional teaching will lead them to learning. However, parents who cannot explain a concept to their child in 10 to 15 minutes should realize that their child needs more teaching.

The parents’ job is teaching responsibility, not teaching schoolwork.

When your child asks for help, sit down in a quiet spot away from the homework area and ask for a brief explanation of the problem. If you believe your child is ready for learning but just lacks a little bit to get started, try to fill the missing gap. This gentle nudge toward learning should not take more than 10 to 15 minutes.

If your child does not understand the concepts, additional teaching should be done by a teacher and not by a parent. Help your child understand what pieces of information are missing, and then phrase it in a specific question for the teacher. Many children will be afraid of taking questions to the teacher, but learning how to ask for information is an important part of the education process and demonstrates responsibility to learn on a child’s part.

Expect hesitancy and fear, but encourage your child to overcome them, James. After all, knowing what you don’t know is the key to becoming a knowledgeable person.

Let your child’s teacher know that you will be following this course of action. Initially, the teacher may want you to sign the child’s questions to know that you have discussed the problem together.

Again, don’t confuse your roles. Just as we parents must refrain from being at-home teachers, we also must refrain from asking teachers to be substitute parents. When each job is fulfilled in the student-educator-parent learning partnership, the job of learning how to learn becomes easier.

And we parents can enjoy just being parents.


Have a question about education, education-related issues or your child’s schoolwork or homework? Ask Dr. Fournier and look for her answer in this column. E-mail your question or comment to Dr. Yvonne Fournier at [email protected].