Helping with homework: when does help become a hindrance?

By on February 12, 2014

I was an independent, motivated student and so my parents never felt the need to watch over me to make sure my school work was done. They trusted that I knew what I was doing and so long as I continued to prove them right, they left me alone.

I understand that not every student is motivated or eager to do well. So parents often ask my advice about how much intervention is appropriate, and where/ how to draw the line when it comes to helping with school work.

My answer is not the same for everyone. I take several things into account before responding. First, I want to know the age of the child. I also want to know about his or her academic history. Has there been a diagnosis of a learning disability, for example? Is the child generally organized and motivated but then suddenly sloppy and uninterested? Have the parents set a pattern that is hard to change? For example, if parents always sit with their children to do homework and maybe even given then answers to the more difficult questions, then it will be hard to go from 100 percent involvement to none. I also want to know about what is going on at home? Are there any family dynamics that may be affecting the child’s ability to focus?

Depending on the situation, I adjust my advice accordingly. My core belief, under ‘normal’ circumstances, is that it’s best for parents to stay within reach, but not on top of their children. In other words, be on hand whenever your children ask for homework support, but if you are working harder and are more worried than them about end results, then there’s something wrong with this picture.

I have spoken to many parents who have become resentful over time as a result of dropping their own work to be available to their child right away, only to feel that they are doing the lion’s share of the work. For example, a child may leave the room to watch TV or may stay but begin texting back and forth with friends while a parent pores over a chapter in the textbook looking for the answer to a question her child has been unable to find on his own. It’s no wonder that a parent resents doing the work while her child does something leisurely.

Other parents have shared their hurt or anger with me because their child is rude or disrespectful after asking for help. This may be in the form of eye rolling or yelling that “you dont know what you’re saying” or “we didn’t learn it that way” or even worse, “you’re stupid!” When a parent shares that she is being treated this way I ask what she thinks a co worker or employee might do when spoken to in this manner. The answer is usually “she would quit.” “Exactly,” I say, “and you can quit too!” Not meanly or abruptly, but as a consequence for the child’s behaviour.

Presented in advance, it is best for a parent to create boundaries as in “when you ask for my help, I need you to remain in the room – either attending to what I am reading or doing other homework. I also need you to ask for my help with enough notice that I don’t have to drop what I am doing immediately and not after (fill in the blank yourself)pm at night. If you call me names or yell at me, I will put the work aside and you will need to do it on your own.”

Despite the script, quitting is not so easy especially if you’re worried about what will happen if you don’t stay to help, even after being treated poorly. You may worry that without help, your child’s grades will decline and in the future, may not be accepted into their University of choice. While understandable, this way of thinking keeps you working harder than your child and continues to perpetuate the negative cycle between you.

Besides the obvious concerns with this dynamic, a child cannot feel proud of his or her accomplishments when you have done most of the work. In addition, a teacher will not be able to identify gaps in knowledge if a child gets the entire worksheets answers correct because of your knowledge and in the future, even if your child does get into that College of choice, how will he manage without you by his side?

Along with taking a step back, only helping when your child requests it and even then, remaining true to what you are willing to tolerate, it is imperative that you not spoon feed the answers. Rather determine where your child is stuck and help him through the process so that he can understand more about how to get to the correct answer rather just what it is.

When homework hassles are getting in the way of your relationship and the levels of stress in the household are way higher because of it, I often recommend hiring a tutor who can take this off your plate and a discussion with the teacher so that he or she understands more about what your child needs.

Sara Dimerman is a Psychologist, Author and mom to two daughters. For more advice, connect at  or on Twitter@helpmesara

About Sara Dimerman (aka HelpMeSara)

Sara Dimerman has been an individual, couple and family therapist for over twenty years. She is one of North America’s most trusted parenting and relationship experts and the author of three books - 'Am I A Normal Parent?', 'Character Is the Key' and a book for couples – ‘How can I be your Lover when I’m too Busy Being your Mother?’ Learn more or listen to advice from Sara and her colleagues by searching for ‘helpmesara’ podcasts on iTunes or by visiting Check out her Facebook page at or follow Sara on Twitter @helpmesara.