Schools have no idea how much homework is done by parents, says Peter Sturtevant, director of the School Counseling Group, an educational consulting firm: “There is a disconnect between what the schools are assigning and who is doing the homework. Parents are writing some good essays and getting B’s on them.”
Homework is productive only to a point, says Harris Cooper, chairman of the department of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and author of The Battle Over Homework. Cooper considers ten minutes a night per grade to be a good guide.
Some schools have fielded so many complaints about homework overload that they’ve conducted surveys on the problem. A few schools—such as National Cathedral and Bethesda’s public Walt Whitman High School—have asked teachers to cut back.
“Parents turn into something between taskmasters and tutors,” Denckla says. “They are having to cajole, push, prod, and help with getting this work done. The schools have no idea what pain and suffering is going on around the dining-room table.”
What can parents expect for all their hard work—coaching and revising, building science-fair displays and writing book reports, from first through 12th grade? In some cases, four more years of helping with homework.
Many kids with “snowplow parents” remain on an electronic tether through college, says Barbara Hofer, a psychology professor at Middlebury College and coauthor of The iConnected Parent: Staying Close to Your Kids in College (and Beyond) While Letting Them Grow Up. Hofer’s research found that one in five students sent college papers home for parents to edit.
Kids who have received lots of help from parents and tutors can struggle later on. That’s because the brain prunes synaptic connections that aren’t being frequently used, says psychologist Siobhan O’Neil Hannes. “Dependence and reliance on others will be hard-wired, while initiation and problem-solving connections will be pruned.”
Some kids who are driven hard and propped up too much wash out of college. Britt Rathbone, a clinical social worker in Bethesda, gets calls every January to counsel students after a failed first semester.
“If you pave the road too smoothly, you don’t develop shock absorbers,” Rathbone says. “They are lost, confused, and unsure of where to go. They had it mapped out—kindergarten, first through 12th, college and graduate school. The conveyor belt is clear. So if you’ve dropped off the conveyor belt, there is no road map.”
But even those who do well in college and grad school aren’t necessarily prepared for the real world. Studies of valedictorians and salutatorians indicate that they achieve only an average level of success later on, says neuropsychologist William Stixrud: “There’s tons of research that shows it makes very little difference where you went to college in terms of career success, life success, income, and life satisfaction. It makes much more difference who you are. You need to focus on developing yourself, academic skills, resilience, and a good sense of values and not be so preoccupied with competition and the perception that others are out to get ahead of you.”
Madeline Levine, a clinical psychologist and author of The Price of Privilege, says people need intrinsic motivation to succeed in the world, but many kids today are focused on extrinsic rewards such as grades. Kids “who are working 24/7 don’t have time to play and to learn to fail, which teaches resilience,” she says. “Normal child development has been grossly interfered with, and we are seeing high levels of serious emotional problems and just plain unhappiness.”
Levine tells parents to think about their own childhoods: “What were the experiences that mattered? They are never about studying late at night. They are about a mentor or a parent who believed in them.”
Parents also need to reflect on the attributes of a truly accomplished life. “We need to define success so we are not just metric-based,” Levine says. “It’s about having relationships, doing things we want to do.”
And it can help to remember that many successful people are alumni of colleges that don’t make the U.S. News top 25.
“We are saying the goal for our children is to be financially secure, to go to the right high school and the right college and get the right first job,” Jack, the DC father, says. “Perhaps we should be saying, ‘Why don’t you follow your heart?’ ”
This article appears in the October 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.