Is School Parent Involvement Ever Harmful?

Should you get involved or stay back?. Chris Ryan, Caiaimage via Getty Images

If you want to get a lot of attention in today's media, challenge what everyone believes is true, and back it up with a lot of data to make your challenge to common wisdom look real.  A prime example of this was the media hype for a Harvard University Press book The Broken Compass; Parental Involvement with Children's Education back in 2014.  Both The Atlantic and The New York Times ran opinion pieces on the book.

The headlines for these opinion pieces stated that parental involvement was over-rated and harming children.  Reading the articles, parents were led to believe that all of their efforts to support their children's education were harming their children and holding them back helicopter-parent style.

The internet was abuzz with the idea that parent involvement was harmfully enabling children.

Since I write about ways for parents to support their kids in school, I got my hands on a copy of The Broken Compass right after its release.  I read it from cover to cover.  I looked over the data and research that was reviewed by authors and university sociology professors Keith Robinson and Angel Harris.  

What I found between the covers of the book was a surprise for me.  While the book's cover seemed to hint that this book was going to shatter the notion that parental involvement is a good thing, the inside of the book didn't really say that at all.  

The book reviewed several other research studies over several years, and used a big data approach that indicated that sometimes parental involvement helps, and other times it doesn't.  My paraphrase of the book is that If you want your parent involvement to work, you have to do it in the right way.  

The idea that if you are going to do something, you should do it right isn't very cutting-edge.  It is so common sense it is almost boring.  I decided I would wait for the myth that parent involvement is harmful to die.  Yet I still see it in parenting magazines and popular blogs.  Maybe the reason that the myth won't die is because sometimes, parent involvement is harmful.  How can you tell a bad style of involvement from good support?  Here is what I learned works and does not work, from The Broken Compass.

Bad Involvement Strategy #1 - The Parent Takes Over For The Child

If you are doing more of you child or teens work then they are, your "help" is harmful.  Are you giving constant reminders when it is time to do homework?  Do you go to your child's school and get their homework that they forgot - not just once in awhile, but all the time?  Do you tell them what to write in their essays?  Ask yourself, if you got sick and took  few days off from helping your child with school, would they know what to do without you?

 If the answer is no, you need to change how you are involved.

Good Involvement Strategy #1  The Parent Sets The Stage

Harris and Robinson repeatedly made the point that children did best in school when parents created conditions for children to succeed, and then let the children do the work.  Ways parents can set the stage include establishing homework routines, providing access to resource materials, making sure children get to school.  The idea is to teach your child to work as independently as possible, and not to rely on you.

Bad Involvement Strategy #2  Parent Botches Homework For Child

Some parents try to help their kids by teaching their children how to do school work the way the parent was taught years ago, or the parent doesn't understand the work and tries to teach the child anyway.  This leads to poor quality homework being turned in, and frustrated kids who tried to get help and still don't understand the material.  It doesn't work when parents try to reteach what is begin taught in school with a totally different method.  The parent also sends the message that the school can't be trusted to teach and explain material correctly.  

Good Involvement Strategy #2  Parent Supports Child Doing Homework

When you help your child with their homework, make sure that the help you provide supports what they are learning in school.  If you don't understand the homework, be honest. don't try to help your child when you don't know what to do yourself. Instead, let the teacher know what you and your child found difficult with the homework.

Bad Involvement Strategy #3 Parent Nags and Punishes To Motivate Child For School 

Parents want what is best for their children, and they want to make sure their children do what is right.  This strategy was surprising in that it came from parents who really wanted their kids to be high achievers.  For these parents, it isn't just about getting the work down and getting by.  These parents set high standards which is very good.  It is just how they communicate the high standards for their children.  These parents make school success an issue of avoiding punishment.  They have the attitude of "You'd better do this -or else!"  As children grow older, they resent the nagging and do not see what their parents value about school success, so they give up.

Good Involvement Strategy #3  Parents Role Model And Plan For Success

One of the most hopeful strategies from the Broken Compass is that even children raised in poverty with uneducated parents can grow up to be successful.  The best strategy is to find educated, successful role models that are in the child's community and for parents to follow this up with helping their high school age children plan for post-high school education.  

Parents with college educations can talk about their careers and college experience with their children.  For families where parents have much less education, pointing out community members like teachers, local doctors, neighbors and others support the idea in the mind of a child that if someone else did it, they can succeed in school, as well.

This was followed up with a plan to get that education.  All parents can and should talk with their children about colleges, choice of high school classes, career options and more.  Even parents who did not graduate high school increased the chance of their children attending college by discussing college plans.

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