6 October 2015
Children learn from stress and failure: all the more reason you shouldn't do their homework
by Dr Rachel Sharman
A recent report by the NSW Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards has suggested that parents are helping children cheat by completing their school homework, and has called for this issue to be addressed.
But does helping your child with homework hinder their progress? The answer to this question is not simple. So far, research on the subject has been mixed, finding that different types of parental involvement in homework have different relationships to achievement.
For example, are you motivated to help your child because you are worried they will fail, or how their performance might reflect upon you? Are you concerned they may miss out on longer-term goals (like university entry) unless you take over some tasks for them? Are they so stressed out by their homework you feel you should help them out?
If you answered yes to any of the above, I’m afraid you are not helping, you are hindering their progress. Let me explain why.
What type of person are you?
Psychologists break down goals into two very broad categories: performance motivated versus mastery motivated.
People who are performance motivated are all about outcome; those who are mastery oriented are interested in what can be learned from the journey rather than the destination.
People with mastery goals believe they can improve with hard work, effort and tend to see failure as a necessary part of learning. Failure teaches you some seriously important skills: what you are doing wrong, what you need to do differently next time, and emotional coping strategies to overcome the real heartache that can occur when we crash and burn.
Mastery-motivated people persist in the face of failure and develop creative problem-solving and emotional-coping strategies. Over time, these strategies combine to create a seriously resilient person.
People with performance goals believe that having to make lots of effort signals low natural ability, and that ability in general is a fixed trait with little opportunity for improvement. These people tend to be psychologically fragile in the face of failure and therefore avoid the experience at all costs.
They fixate on a goal and go all out to achieve it. This can lead to a range of unhelpful behaviours, such as cheating. Deep down this person knows they are a fraud, but believes everyone else who succeeds has played the same game. They will go to extraordinary lengths (even to their death) to protect the façade.
Failure is part of the learning process
Evidence typically shows that people with mastery goals ultimately outperform those with performance goals. To provide mastery-building support, it is important to explain how a task is important for developing your child’s competence and improving themselves.
You need to model how problems can be overcome with effort and persistence, as well as demonstrate a hardy view of the self in failure (we all fail at some point - it’s what you learn from it and how you change to improve yourself that counts).
The problem for parents is that we exist in a performance-oriented world. Ask yourself honestly, do you write an essay to explore a new idea or writing technique, or to get the highest grade? Do you run on a footy field looking for risk-taking opportunities to genuinely test your mettle, or do you just go out to win?
I remember as a young girl not understanding why mountaineers wanted to endure extraordinary hardships to reach the summit of Mt Everest. I asked my mum, “Why don’t they just fly to the top?” From an eight-year-old such a question isn’t too surprising, yet we see exactly this conundrum play out in adult circles. For example, why don’t we just let elite athletes drug-up for the Olympics?
Sadly, we are unlikely to reach a resolution in these debates: people who adopt performance goals come from a fundamentally different belief system to those with mastery goals. The two groups circle each other with an equal mixture of suspicion and disdain, incredulous that the other’s underlying worldview is genuine.
My final warning is reserved for parents who take over tasks to prevent their child from experiencing anxiety.
Anxiety exerts its hold over people via the process of negative reinforcement, where tactics to avoid a feared task become self-rewarding.
If you “help” relieve your child’s anxiety by doing their work for them, you have reinforced them to avoid taking on a challenge, and taught them to rely on others for an easy way out. Your child will continue to look to that avenue for success and will not develop independence and confidence. This is where the line is crossed from supporting to enabling.
Before you can be sure you are doing the right thing by helping your child, it’s worth questioning your own motivations.