published Sunday, April 27th, 2014

Kennedy: Helping on homework apparently worthless

I used to think the TV show "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" was fake.

When you swing and miss on a second-grade social studies question while watching a TV game show, the adult mind automatically starts to rationalize: "You can't be that stupid, dude. This show must be fake." But then my wife and I began helping our sons, now ages 12 and 7, with school homework, and I learned that I didn't really know what I didn't really know.

Just this year, for example, I've learned that:

n Multiplying two negative numbers yields a positive number -- for reasons that are not entirely clear to me but obviously have something to do with the revised theory that two wrongs do make a right.

n The Spanish and Portuguese conquered South and Central America because they had better weapons but also because they brought over a bunch of European germs. Moral: If there had been Listerine and Purell back then, the smart money in Vegas might have swung from the stinky-breath conquistadors to the Incas and the Aztecs.

n One of the transitional moon phases is called a "fat-belly moon" -- a.k.a. a gibbous moon.

I learned this from our 7-year-old, who insisted on calling it a "Guinness Moon." This was easy for me to remember having once personally possessed a fat belly resulting from too much Guinness.

All this is to say, I've done my homework this year. Now, bring on those third-grade TCAPs.

Imagine my distress then, when I read this headline in the New York Times last week: "Parental Involvement is Over-rated."

For those of you who don't see the New York Times, let me summarize the report:

Two researchers, Keith Robinson, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, and Angel L. Harris a professor of sociology at Duke University, have done a study concluding that parents who become homework helpers are just spinning their wheels.

That's right, all that parental involvement helping with algebra homework and science projects may, at the end of the day, do nothing to improve a student's grades. To put it in mathematical terms: Homework plus mom and dad equals zilch.

Here was the money quote from Robinson and Harris, as reported in the Times: "After comparing the average achievement of children whose parents regularly engage in a 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."

This is the passage that stung me most: "Most parents appear to be ineffective at helping their children with homework."

Reading this result seems counterintuitive -- like chocolate bars, beer and coffee (in moderation) contributing to better health. But it's hard to argue with the evidence. The numbers say what they say.

There was one important caveat, though. Children from families who stress the value of education do demonstrably better than those from families with parents who do not value education as much. The takeaway lesson for parents: Set the tone and then back away.

A few weeks ago in a discussion group at church, I smugly offered: "When I was little, I think my Dad was vaguely aware I went to school. But he sure wasn't going to help me with homework."

Raise your hand if the older you get, the smarter your parents become.

I've got both arms straight up.

Contact Mark Kennedy at or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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