How much should parents ‘help’ kids with assignments?

We’ve just finished dealing with the school Science Fair assignment. The directions were handed out just prior to Winter break, coinciding beautifully with the end of semester for me, and my extended stay in Sydney for family reasons. I got back the day after school started to a child with the project begun only in my child’s head. No materials, no nothing.

This, my friends, is payback.

I remember my own last-minute, less than exemplary projects throughout my school career. I became queen of throwing something together the night before and handing it in. I went to school in the dark ages – a time when Google did not exist. You could go to the newsagent and buy a School Project folder on different topics for a few dollars, which you’d then copy parts out of and cut up the pictures to stick on the cardboard. You had to go to the library, not access it externally. People (not me, thank goodness) sometimes cut pictures out of library books thinking the teacher would be impressed instead of horrified.

I remember my dad sitting on the edge of my bed telling me a project was not good enough. He was right. I remember his frustration.

It’s what I felt as I painstakingly argued with my son, trying to get him to apply himself to his science fair project and get it done properly. Properly. Such a subjective term. It would have taken me about an hour to do it. But I didn’t, except for helping with pasting the sections on the cardboard.

But it’s truly agonising to know that the kid, young as he is, doesn’t appear to care as much as I do.

What did I do wrong?

Any mother of four children has done the late-night run to get poster board. Has goaded the kid into doing the work, writing it up and getting the darned thing finished. And if you’re like me, you have more interest in the overall piece of work than the kid does. Oftentimes it leads you to directing the work a little more than you should. A little more than is necessary. A little more than is fair.

We’ve all seen those projects where the parent has apparently taken the lead in no uncertain terms. The presence of the child in the work extends to writing their name at the bottom and little else.

None of us wants to be ‘that’ parent. But then again, they have to hand something decent in, don’t they? You don’t want to be the parent that allowed their kid to hand in an incomplete piece of utter crap. Suddenly you see the family name tarnished! (or some such garbage.)

As an ex-college teacher I would say that a parent doing a child’s work is akin to plagiarism. It’s not fair to anyone. Not the child, the parent, other children, other parents – or the teacher. But in college we fail people who plagiarise. I wonder if it’s time to start failing those children whose parents have done the assignment?

What do you think?



  • In 2nd grade my sister and I had to turn in a shrine to the Virgin Mary. My sister was way more artistic than I and completed her project 3 nights before it was due. I was severely lacking in artistic talents and ruined 7 shoeboxes over 3 nights in an attempt to complete the project. There was crying, gnashing of teeth, and feeling like an artistic failure.

    Finally, I went to bed in disgust and shame cause all my attempts looked like crap.

    I woke up the next morning to find a beautiful shrine that my Mom had culled from my previous 7 attempts. Her shrine was a work of art…absolutely beautiful. It was better than Christmas morning.

    She took me aside and whispered that this would be the only time in my school career that she would complete an assignment for me…and she only did that cause she witnessed first-hand how hard I tried and tried and tried some more.

    That was the only time she helped..and coincidentally other than the A I got from the shrine, my art classes all thru grade/high-school were atrocious.

    It’s one of the best memories I’ll have of my Mom for the rest of my life.

  • Oh wow! Kath, that’s beautiful. Your memory of it is so incredibly special and detailed – it really underscores that life as a parent is not black and white – there are shades of grey always, and every child is different. Thank you SO MUCH!

  • Kath’s memory is lovely. And a fantastic illustration of the lengths some parents go to be committed to her kids and reward the act of trying (which for some children is probably worth the reward in itself).

    For us, with a bright 14 year old in 9th grade who has the misfortune of being the child of two A-types with further educations, we probably make it awfully difficult for Hannah. We insist work be her own. We edit it for style, check the validity of the substance and offer guidance on what might me a worthwhile approach, but we rarely actually contribute to the work. The biggest hurdle we offer, and I believe it’s quite real, is that our expectations of quality and substance probably far exceed that of her teachers – full Harvard-style referencing, correct construction of language, grammar, etc.

    There have been many hours of sitting beside Hannah, ready to blow a fuse, as we drag work she doesn’t find interesting almost bodily out of her. Other times, we need do almost nothing.

    And, it appears the start of 9th grade down here in Australia has flicked the “context” switch. At least in part. Her awareness that all her work exists in a larger continuum of understanding – both of the particular assignment and her wider educational and personal life experience – seems to have flicked. At least to a point.

    We shall see.

  • I’m probably not the best one to comment on this (as you can see by the latest blog post that has popped up with this comment), as I loved doing projects, and THAT has seemed to rub off on my daughter.

    Yes, she’s only in Kindergarten, but she’s already been assigned her first presentation! For real! I couldn’t believe it. The kiddos were given a choice of how they wanted to present their information, and she chose the “poster and speech” method to share what she learned about Susan B. Anthony. She wrote it all out herself. She drew the pictures. She cut everything. I did help her sort out what facts to focus on, and I did help her affix them to the poster-board, because she’s never done it! It’s due on the 22nd, and she started working on it the day it was assigned (the 15th).

    But, to answer your question: I’ll be available to help guide her in aesthetic ideas or possibly the type of information to include, but I won’t do a project for her. Looks like I won’t have to… (knock on wood…)

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