Homework: How Parents Can Help Their Kids and How Kids Can Let Them

“Did you do your homework yet?”

“Mom! I’ll do it. Stop bugging me about it!”


“Is it done yet?”


Sound familiar to you? I hope it doesn’t, but it just might. Fights over homework are all too common but avoidable. So why are they happening? Read on to learn some reasons they might be cropping up and a few ideas to keep them at bay — for both parents and kids.

Say What You Mean and Hear What’s Been Said

That exchange above might correctly report what was said, but I don’t think it accurately reflects either what was meant or what was heard. When most parents ask about homework, what they mean to say is, “I love you, dear child, and I know how hard you work in school. Since I want nothing but the best for you, I want to help you use your time well, so you can have some time to relax and get a good night’s sleep tonight.” Kids reading this are probably rolling their eyes right now, but that’s actually what Mom or Dad means. But that’s a problem: parents should say exactly what they mean in the positive and supportive way they actually mean it.

Parents don’t shoulder all the blame, however, because there’s also a difference between what was said and what was heard. Instead of “Did you do your homework yet?” most kids hear, “I know you haven’t started your homework yet. Don’t you realize how important school is? I don’t trust you to do this yourself, so I need to tell you what to do and how to do it.” Ok, sure, now cue the parents’ eye-rolling, but I can tell you this is exactly what your kids are hearing.

Everyone is Trying to Be Less Stressed

I recently read a fascinating study on just this topic. Parents were asked to sit next to and watch — but not help — their elementary-aged child do a series of challenging tasks on a computer. During the experiment, both the parents and children were being monitored for signs of physiological stress (heart rate, skin temperature and conductivity, etc.). So what happened? As parents watched their kids struggle, their own stress levels went up. The kids, though struggling, were just fine. As the children struggled with their tasks, the parents also struggled with not intervening, a struggle which many of them lost. Once parents began to help, their stress levels decreased. But what do you think happened to the kids? Their stress levels actually increased when their parents began to “help”!

So the conflict playing out every evening over the dinner/homework table makes sense. No one likes to feel out of control. Parents are trying to relieve their stress and help their children, and students are trying to preserve whatever calm they’ve managed to bring home after a busy school day and keep their parents out of it. It helps if both parents and students can understand each other’s motivations a little better so that they can put each other’s actions, and the effects of their own actions, into context.

So what might help? A little understanding and communication go a long way, but here are some other tips for both parents and students to hopefully lead to more harmony in the home, which is clearly the best environment for raising healthy and happy kids and learners!

For Kids

1. Be proactive and ask for help when you need it. First, asking for help doesn’t mean you’re not “smart” or “capable.” Truly “smart” and “capable” people always ask for help or explanations when they need them. It’s how they learn. And, second, your parents will be absolutely delighted you asked! And you get the added benefit of being able to let your parents know how they can best help you. You can set the terms.

2. Stick to a homework schedule. Same time. Same place. Every night. That’ll actually help you be more productive, and your parents seeing you stick to that schedule will likely keep them off your back!

3. Set yourself up for success. You’d like to get your work done as quickly as possible, right? So try to organize what you’ll do when and how much time it’ll take. Do your work at a desk or table. Maybe put the phone out of sight, only checking it every half hour as reward. If the idea of doing these things is difficult or impossible for you, this is where your parents actually can help you. They might not know anything about history or algebra, but they do know about adult-ing, and that’s exactly what I’m talking about here.

For Parents

1. Be the consultant and not the manager. Instead of telling your kids what they should be doing, you should be asking how you can help. Think you know better? Well, yeah. If your kid had the brain of a 45-year-old lawyer, their homework would be a breeze. The goal isn’t just getting the homework done tonight, it’s helping students acquire the skills they need to be successful in the long term.

2. Help with homework. Don’t do homework. This one should be obvious. What I mean, though, is to try not to simply give answers to students, but model the questions they should be asking for themselves. You’re there to facilitate the process, NOT to correct every mistake and make every assignment perfect. 

3. It’s not worth the fight. If the homework battles have escalated into a true fight for control, that’s not a fight that’s worth winning. You might be able to force your kids to do their homework, but you can’t force them to care or to learn. And those are the outcomes you really want to incentivize. Make sure your kids know you’re there for them to help in any way they’d like and help them own the consequences of their actions.