Parental Involvement with Children's Schoolwork is Overrated

It seems that unschoolers and alternative schoolers continue to be in the minority when they say children are competent, self-directed learners. For decades most child development experts have been telling adults that children won’t learn to walk, talk, or socialize without well-trained adults to provide proper instruction, motivation, and products and it seems they are winning the battle for the hearts and minds of parents and educators. In the 1990s Susannah Sheffer wrote in Growing Without Schooling 60 about my then-baby daughter Lauren (now 27!). Susannah mentions her in connection with John Holt’s observation about how we learn to talk.

Many years ago, John Holt said in answer to one of my questions, 'We are born knowing how to think abstractly—if we weren't, we would never learn to talk.” Recently, I found an advertisement for the book Teach Your Baby to Talk in John's files. He had marked this excerpt:

When your child is nearby, talk out loud about what you are hearing, seeing, doing or feeling. Let him know there are words to describe all sorts of activities and feelings... Be sure to talk slowly and clearly, and use simple words and short phrases. "Romper Room” and “Captain Kangaroo” are television programs that use this kind of self-talk. Watch them to see how it is done.

John wrote "Wrong!” next to this passage, and I share his horror. Are we to believe that babies —hat is, young human beings—never learned to talk before studious parents watched and conscientiously imitated Romper Room? I can picture, no small amount of dread, what babies whose parents make a point of practicing this self-conscious talk will end up sounding like when they themselves begin talking. What is fascinating about learning language is how much abstraction it does involve, as John correctly reminded me. How can Lauren, in our office, figure out that the word shoes indicates her own shoes, her mother's very different-looking shoes, and a picture of shoes in a book? How, for that matter, does she figure out that a word indicates anything at all, that we're all not just making random sounds? When I watch Lauren at this kind of work, I marvel at how much babies have to make sense of in their first two years, and how competently they manage it. Lauren creates meaning out of the seemingly random and often indirect data that is available to her—somehow, Lauren is learning to speak even without the benefit of Romper Room.

Of course, children learned to be competent readers, writers, and talkers well before television and education experts usurped children’s independent learning and claimed it as their own doing. Parents, too, have had their roles altered by education experts who claim parents are vital to their children’s success and must help their children with their homework, volunteer at school, emphasize the importance of going to college and attending school, attend school events themselves, and so on. I know some people consider my wife and I to be slackers—some even claim we are child abusers—because we don’t make our kids kowtow to the school regimen. Yet our girls (and many other unconventionally educated children) have gone on to college and work and they are making their ways into the world as competent adults; there are more paths to adulthood and success than just following the road of conventional schooling. However, most parents don’t want their children to veer off the school road and they actively participate in the schooling rituals of modern society; but is there any evidence that parental involvement makes a difference in a child’s school achievement?

A forthcoming book by Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris, The Broken Compass: Is Promoting Parental Involvement Leading Parents in the Wrong Direction? (Harvard Press) challenges this assumption. In a recent op-ed in the NY Times the authors write:

Most people, asked whether parental involvement benefits children academically, would say, “of course it does.” But evidence from our research suggests otherwise. In fact, most forms of parental involvement, like observing a child’s class, contacting a school about a child’s behavior, helping to decide a child’s high school courses, or helping a child with homework, do not improve student achievement. In some cases, they actually hinder it . . . . . . Even the notion that kids do better in school when their parents are involved does not stack up. After comparing the average achievement of children whose parents regularly engage in each form of parental involvement to that of their counterparts whose parents do not, we found that most forms of parental involvement yielded no benefit to children’s test scores or grades, regardless of racial or ethnic background or socioeconomic standing . . . In fact, there were more instances in which children had higher levels of achievement when their parents were less involved than there were among those whose parents were more involved. Even more counterintuitively: When involvement does seem to matter, the consequences for children’s achievement are more often negative than positive. . . . There is a strong sentiment in this country that parents matter in every respect relating to their children’s academic success, but we need to let go of this sentiment and begin to pay attention to what the evidence is telling us.

Though this research concludes that parents should make children buy into the value of attending school, I think it is important to read between the lines and see how it supports self-directed learning for children, too, such as how the child should own their learning, not the parents. Indeed, some parents might finally give up the charade of being responsible for their children’s learning when they read the following:

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 at helping their children with homework. Even more surprising to us was that when parents regularly helped with homework, kids usually performed worse. One interesting exception: The group of Asians that included Chinese, Korean and Indian children appeared to benefit from regular help with homework, but this benefit was limited to the grades they got during adolescence; it did not affect their test scores.

Viewed from the unschooling perspective, I see this research as more evidence that help and teaching that is foisted upon learners (“for their own good,” of course) is often counterproductive. I can see John Holt and Ivan Illich nodding in agreement with that sentence but I can also see them spinning in their graves over the comments to this article. There are 524 comments from readers and the majority doubt the research and actively challenge the idea that their involvement was not necessary to help their children do well in school.

The article ends with this simple advice:

What should parents do? They should set the stage and then leave it.

Rather than controlling and predicting learning, the role of parents should be to encourage and support their children’s learning wherever it may take them. Why is it so hard for adults to acknowledge that children can learn on their own, and, as this research shows, that some adult interventions actually inhibit a child’s learning?