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How much should you help with homework?

Bedtime has come and gone, and your grumpy 10-year-old is staring bleakly at his half-finished essay. It's due tomorrow, and there's a choice before you: Send him to school with the work incomplete. Or give him a little extra "help" to end the agony and get the job done.

There likely isn't a parent out there who hasn't grappled with this homework quandary: How much help is the right amount? Will your child become "a slacker" if you take option B and prod (or, let's be honest, pull) him along? Will he hate school if you don't?

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Think of yourself as a coach, say parenting experts and researchers. Not the kind that barks from the sidelines, consumed with winning, but someone who provides the tools (the desk, the pencils, the quiet space), the cheers and the occasional suggestion - and knows once exhaustion sets in, when to close the books.

"Be at the elbow but don't hold the pen," says Linda Cameron, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and veteran teacher, who researches homework. (And admits to helping her own now-grown children a little too much on occasion.) "You can prompt, give them resources, give them snacks."

And while parents need to curb the urge to give the answers, Dr. Cameron says, they should never send their child to school the next day without a note explaining why their homework isn't done - don't leave it up to your child to defend that unfinished essay. "I wrote many notes to school, saying we spent this much time on it and enough's enough, we need family time," she recalls.

Dr. Cameron, who completed a major study on homework in 2008, says she doesn't think there should be any for children under 11. Still, most younger students do get at least some, and studies show that the effectiveness of parental involvement depends on grade level.

It helps in elementary school, as children are building good study habits, but hinders in the middle grades, says Erika Patall, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who analyzed 34 homework studies from the United States and Canada.

In high school, she says, students more typically rely on parents for expert advice, when they are knowledgeable on a certain subject.

But even in the early years, the best assistance to children is setting clear rules for when and where homework should get done. "Be as specific as possible about what the procedures are every day," Ms. Patall says, but don't give answers. "It's better to leave it undone than cheat."

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But parents also have the right to shape what kind of homework their children do, suggests parent educator Judy Arnall, who lectures at the University of Calgary - even if that means calling a halt to it entirely. Ms. Arnall recently took the extreme step of pulling her 15-year-old daughter from school when, after a request for a homework exemption, the teachers kept giving her zeroes.

"If you want your kids to have a balanced life we should speak up for that," she tells parents. Her daughter, who is involved in clubs, volunteers and is writing a novel, now does high school online and manages her own time.

In most cases, it should never get that far. Better to negotiate a compromise with the teacher, Dr. Cameron cautions, since tension and mixed messages can also impact a child's view of school. Homework should not require a lot of parent intervention, and if it does, it's important to request a meeting. "No matter what you do, you need to show respect," she says. "Maybe the teacher hasn't thought through the negative effect of what she intended [with the homework]"

But while pressure comes from all sides, researchers suggest it's often heaviest from parents, who need to be more sensitive about their expectations and cautious about piling on too many scheduled activities.

"Parents want their kids to be the best and get into Harvard, so they're advocating for homework without thinking about what it means for the kids," says Dr. Cameron.

But a good coach, she advises, knows when to say "enough is enough" - and go for ice cream instead.

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About the Author

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More

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