How to Navigate Homework with Your Middle Schooler: The Transition from “Editor-in-Chief" to "Consultant”

I walked into preschool to pick up my 4-year old who proudly exclaimed, “Mommy! I have HOMEWORK tonight!” Indeed, it was our turn to take home the “Class Book” and design a page that described our family, complete with pictures. My frazzled “Mom-Brain” automatically translated his statement to reflect the truth, which was, “No, Buddy, I have homework tonight.”

As parents, we transition through the many stages of how to monitor our children’s lives. At first, we are the providers of everything our babies need to survive. Eventually, we find ourselves as our children’s perpetual frontal lobe, whose job it is to consistently communicate to them what would, could, or should happen next based on whatever choices they are about to make.

Homework monitoring is no different. We begin by taking on the entire process, knowing that if we don’t, it is likely that a piece of paper with a dot of glue and possibly a smear of applesauce will make it back to school. Since we often believe that the end product directly reflects our capability as parents, we refuse to let that happen.

Elementary Beginnings

As our children enter elementary school, we are tempted to become the CEO, or “Editor-in-Chief,” of the homework process. At first, nothing leaves the house without our stamp of approval. This is a result of two things: one, our children often do need our assistance when they are young, and two, we have a lingering belief that the quality of our children’s work still reflects on us as parents. Therefore, we hold tight to our ultimate decision making power: “No, the word 'dress' does not begin with the letter j, even though it does sound like it.” “I know you like orange, but the sky is blue.” Throughout elementary school, we as parents are encouraged to step back a bit and allow our children to start to build independence and self-advocacy skills.

Moving onto Middle School

In middle school, however, parents need to give up their CEO titles and all of the decision-making power that goes with them. This is mainly because we are handicapping our children by helping them too much. Learned helplessness is a real thing. By middle school, parent hands should not touch the keyboard, hold the pencil, erase any errors, and most importantly, we should never go back into a document and edit it when our children are not present. Our need to edit, retouch, and “fix” our children’s work now says more about us as parents than just letting the work return to school as-is.

When we insist on being involved, we send two clear messages. First, we communicate to our children that regardless of how much effort they put into their work, it is not and never will be good enough for us. While the work might actually not be “good enough,” it is significantly more productive for them to hear this from their teachers. Our children’s teachers know how to phrase this feedback using the vocabulary and systems of the class, or through the natural consequence of having their students do the work again. Don’t forget we have lost our jobs as CEOs, therefore our children have transitioned to perceiving our feedback as “all about us” and us just “picking on them” over trivial things. If you want your child to internalize the important messages you are saying through your teeth at 11:00 pm when they have done the bare minimum of work on a major project you need to think to yourself, "What is the worst that will happen if my child turns this in as-is?”

Consider yourself a consultant now, and your opinion is only given credence when it is directly solicited by the client (your child). You are there as a valuable resource if they ask for your help, but otherwise, you remain neutral. That is, unless teacher or school feedback communicates to you that you need to reprise your role of CEO.

Second, by correcting everything in the homework we are communicating to our children’s teacher(s) that our children have mastered all of the material and are ready for the next step in learning. In other words, we are giving the teacher false feedback. Teachers individualize their support based on the work that children turn in. If it is exemplary, they feel comfortable encouraging the students to move along. This can ultimately lead to the development of children who are terrified of tests or in-class assessments of any kind. Who can blame them? Their cover is about to be blown because their ghost writers are at home, at work, or running errands.

When and How Do You Get Involved?

The consulting role is the first level. You are always available when solicited. If your child is both telling you and showing you through their grades and reports that they “got this,” then relax into that role. If the feedback from grades and/or teachers communicates otherwise, then you need to reprise your role of CEO and change up the way things work. Remember, however, that the successful 21st century CEO involves everyone in the design of this process. This is essential for the employee (child) buy-in that is essential for success.

Lastly, as the CEO, don’t forget that your child is not a mini-you. Your child learns, organizes, and thinks differently than you. Therefore, you must agree to trial and error when designing the new company structure. Remember, your goal is to foster a growth mindset in your child, which begins with a belief that making mistakes is an essential step to experiencing success.

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About the Author

Annie Griffin

Annie Griffin is the Middle School Academic Dean and Learning Coordinator at The Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, PA.