Here is a scenario most parents can relate to: it’s late afternoon and your children come home from school exhausted, weighed down like turtles by school bags full of homework. What do you do: 1) sit down to help them with it or 2) encourage them to do it on their own?

The answer to the question is “It depends.” In the most comprehensive summary of the scientific literature to date, researchers from Duke University concluded that whether or not parents should help their children with their homework depends on: 1) the grade level of the children, 2) how knowledgeable parents are about the subject matter of the homework, and 3) how parents go about helping their children with it.1

Before you sit down with your children to help them with their homework, you should consider their age. Sounds cryptic? Surprising as it may seem, researchers have consistently found that homework assistance is beneficial for children in elementary and high school, only not for middle-school-aged children. So if your children are in middle school, you are better off letting them do their homework on their own.

Why? Researchers believe that parental assistance with homework for children in elementary school helps because they are young and impressionable, and your help is about more than just completing the homework: you are also teaching them how to study in the first place.

The situation is quite different when it comes to high-school-aged students. Here, researchers speculate that your involvement adds value because you are only likely to help out when you have particular expertise to share.

Why, then, would it be detrimental for you to sit down with your middle-schoolers to help them out with their homework? Here, researchers think that the issue is their specific developmental stage. As budding teenagers caught between childhood and adulthood, middle-school-aged children have a strong need for autonomy and are likely to resist any effort on your part to interfere in their affairs.

As the father of a 14-year-old son who is about to enter high school, I recognize these behaviors from my own experiences. When my son was in elementary school, he absolutely loved when we did his homework together; it was a great occasion for father-son bonding. Over time, he developed some impressive study habits and skills that have served him well in middle school, and which I hope will continue in high school. Although we still share many great moments together, it is safe to say that they rarely involve his homework.

Before deciding whether or not to help your children with their homework, you should also consider whether or not you are qualified to do so. Researchers have discovered that the more parents know about the subject matter, the more children learn from getting help with it. This makes intuitive sense. You may even teach your children how to use different ways to accomplish certain tasks. However, when you know little or nothing about the topic, your children are likely to get frustrated by your inability to help out, and you might even make mistakes in their homework.

Researchers have found that, in general, parents are better able to help their children with reading and writing than with math homework. They attribute that to the fact that when it comes to reading and writing, most parents are simply better at it. The opposite is the case with respect to math. Here, parents often know less, are less up-to-date with the latest instructional strategies, and a parent’s old instructional strategies often conflict with those contemporary methods taught at school.

Helping when you can and where appropriate is important, but it is even more important that you stay within the proper bounds of involvement. One of the most consistent findings is that children benefit the most when parents support them in their own efforts to do the homework rather than help them out every step of the way.

There is nothing wrong with working very closely with your children on their homework since this will help them develop great study habits and skills. Yet, the most effective form of involvement overall is simply to set clear expectations and guidelines and then to reward good behavior when those expectations and guidelines are met. One important aspect is to set clear rules for when, where, and how your children’s homework is supposed to be completed. Research indicates that when parents engage in proper rule-setting, children spend more time on their homework, use that time more effectively, and most importantly, internalize those rules so that they become routine, good habits over time.

Tanni Haas

Tanni Haas, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Communication Arts, Sciences and Disorders at the City University of New York – Brooklyn College.