Why Parents Shouldn’t Help With Math Homework

There are many stages of my daughter’s life that I’m dreading: Adolescence, for starters. The onslaught of birthday party invitations when she’s in preschool, or lack thereof (I haven’t decided what’s worse) and, of course, the homework. I can’t imagine anything more frustrating than forcing my tired child to spend even more time at a desk. I’m also worried that I will be made to help, and let’s face it I was done with school a long time ago. However, my belief in parents as partners in education trumps my overall laziness so I have resigned to the fact that I will do the things I hate.

I was relieved to find some research that said my help may not be necessary (yes!!!). Last year, two sociology professors released a book called The Broken Compass, which examines whether active parental involvement helps improve your child’s marks. After combing through 30 years worth of longitudinal surveys of American families, they found that reviewing your child’s homework has no bearing on their results.

“When we examined whether regular help with homework had a positive impact on children’s academic performance, we were quite startled by what we found. Regardless of a family’s social class, racial or ethnic background, or a child’s grade level, consistent homework help almost never improved test scores or grades. Most parents appear to be ineffective in helping their children with homework. Even more surprising to us was that when parents regularly helped with homework, kids usually performed worse,” the authors wrote in The New York Times.

One explanation for why this occurs is that parents never had a good grasp of the material to begin with and may be confusing their children rather than assisting them. This happens particularly with math as math anxiety is now a known well-documented condition.

While some studies believe that math anxiety is genetic, recent research suggests that it’s a condition that’s transmittable through homework.

That study examined the math ability of first and second graders in relation to their parents’ math anxiety. They found that children were only impacted by their parents’ anxiety when the parents helped them with homework. Worst of all was the more the anxious parent helped, the worse a child performed, the more likely the child in question would develop math anxiety.

So what can parents do? A piece in The New York Times suggests they should keep about their negative feelings to themselves. “ ‘I’m not a math person either, and that’s O.K.,’ is not a good message to convey,” one cognitive psychologist said. Instead, parents should keep their child’s math issues separate from their own. A separate psychology and neuroscience professor recommended telling your child, “‘You have your math homework, and I have mine,’” and indicating when you “count your change, calculate when dinner will be ready, look at prices in a grocery store.” I will be that parent, showing them how many glasses of wine fit into one bottle and how many glasses it takes for mom to recover from her day of child-rearing.


Marina Gomer is a journalist and mother of one.  She lives with her family in Sydney, Australia.