Project Management: assisting children with school assignments

With schools opening then closing and kids having to work from home during these irregular times Rebecca Chaney asks how much help is too much when it comes to assisting children with school assignments?

When my son came home from school and thrust the sheet of paper at me, the misery on his face said it all. “I can’t do this,” his grumble confirmed. I read the note: “Design and build a solar water heater”. I didn’t need to read further. My heart had already dropped. Science is not exactly my thing.

“Maybe ask your father,” I suggested, “he should be able to help.” So that’s what he did, and my husband was only too willing to assist. Unlike me, science is right up his alley.

After an afternoon of scrounging around in our garage, followed by hammering intermingled with laughter, my son proudly showed me his carefully constructed masterpiece of mirrors and wood. “Did you do this?” I asked. “Of course I did,” he answered, before adding, “with Dad’s help.”

Help. We all need it to get by, but as I looked down at the contraption in my son’s hands, I had to ask myself, how much help is too much? It was obvious that my husband’s help had extended beyond simply passing the tools. Is this okay? After all, our son had already learnt about the basic scientific principles of solar energy in class, so my husband wasn’t telling him anything new. It was putting these principles into practice, making the jump from paper to three-dimensional product, that our son found hard to grasp. Once my husband sat him down and they discussed what would and wouldn’t work, our son’s potential panic attack was averted. Is that more important than who nailed what?

When our son returned from school after presenting his project to the class and announced that his heater had worked well, I was pleased for him. I was even happier to learn that he had told the teacher of the help my husband had given him, and I was more than a little relieved that the teacher didn’t seem to have a problem with this help. Then our son told me about the students who didn’t hand in a finished product. “They wish they had a Dad like mine,” he said.

Then it hit me. Did our son have an unfair advantage simply because he had a parent who was willing and able to help him complete the assignment well? At the risk of stereotyping others, I pondered whether a student from a single-parent family, whose parent may be too busy to help, might be at a distinct disadvantage. Or a student from a family without a scientifically minded parent, especially when assistance from teachers in today’s jam-packed curriculum appears to be becoming more limited as well.

It made me think back to when I was at school studying German by correspondence. A friend of mine was also studying the language, but there was one noticeable difference between us. My friend lived in a household where German was spoken every day, whereas I had to rely on audiotapes and books. Needless to say, my friend passed every oral examination with flying colours and minimal effort, while I scraped through on a wave of sheer determination and stress. Yet no-one questioned the obvious advantage my friend had over me in this subject, including me.

I wonder if people feel the same way about assignments in, dare I say it, ‘academic’ subjects, where parental involvement might be obvious; for example, science projects or English speeches. Is help in these subjects more likely to be discouraged than help from a gifted parent in one of the creative arts, such as music?

And, by helping our son, are my husband and I making it too easy for him and setting a bad example for the future? Should we instead wait for him to fail, or at least show a higher level of anxiety, before offering assistance? Where do you draw the line between encouraging children to give it a go and work it out for themselves, and stopping the first stage of a meltdown?

When time to complete assignments is limited, and students often have more than one assignment to complete at a time, I find it hard to judge when enough is enough and it’s time to step in and lend a hand. Sometimes I know I must get it wrong, but I’m not comfortable watching one of my children descend into despair over schoolwork.

My husband and I want our children to know we are there for them whenever they need us. The hardest thing is to know when to step back so that they learn another valuable lesson: how to recover from failure.

Without a doubt, our son would not have learnt as much about applying scientific principles in a practical manner without my husband’s assistance. Why should education be left to teachers, textbooks and the often-conflicting information on the internet anyway? I want my children to explore and exchange ideas face to face with living individuals and to experience the joy of creating something with another.

My son did well with his project. I do wonder though, how well he would have done without my husband’s help. And how he would have coped, both with the pressure of completing the task and, potentially, a different end result. I guess I won’t know the answer until he brings home an assignment with which neither my husband nor I can help him.