Dr. Joan to Parents: Why Are You Doing Your Kids’ Schoolwork for Them?

Posted January 23, 2009 by

As most of you know, I usually write about issues facing parents of young children for EP, but this past week something happened with my middle schooler that gave me pause.  My son participated in the annual science fair, which in itself is not remarkable. What was remarkable was how many projects were clearly accomplished by the parents, and not the children.  As I walked through the school gym looking at the winners, I started wondering how many projects and assignments kids really do on their own nowadays.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about parents helping, coaching, or even correcting their kids work.  I’m talking about parents taking on their children’s assignments as their own, and letting their kids take a back seat.

In the case of the science fair, I started asking various parents questions, such as how hard their child found it to complete their project.  One parent told me that she did “about 75%” of her son’s science fair project because he was simply too overwhelmed with homework and sports to finish it “properly.”  Another parent told me he “practically” did his daughter’s advanced math during the last week leading up to the science fair because she was swamped with other responsibilities.  As I perused the finished projects I couldn’t help wonder what a “proper” science fair project was supposed to look like, but let me tell you, some of them were something Einstein himself would have been proud of.  But the problem was this:  it was so clear they weren’t done by a child. And that seemed really wrong to me.

My husband and I have a big rule in our house:  Projects are done by our kids, no matter the outcome, no matter the potential for dismal grades, no matter the price our egos pay when other kids’ projects have a shiny A+ .  We strongly feel that children need to learn how to develop skills to complete a project from beginning to end.  But this week I started to wonder if we are suddenly outnumbered by parents who no longer feel this is important to their child’s development.

This leads me to a recent study which found that upwards of 70% of kids will plagiarize, cheat, or pass off others work as their own before they graduate college.  Is this the new trend?  Are we teaching our kids that success at all cost should now be a priority?  Are we taking over their work to ensure their “success”?  The authors of the study suggested that kids are under greater pressure than ever before to succeed, and that they have a greater number of daily stressors than any other generation.  As the mother of 3 kids, I know all about the stress in kids’ lives, but is this an excuse to start doing their work for them?  And this begs the question:  Why are parents doing this?  Is it because they have unfinished business from their own childhood, and making their kids the “best” at everything makes them feel better?  Have we devolved into that much insecurity?

I also wonder if, instead of doing more for our kids, we should be doing less, in order to let them learn about life’s lessons on their own.  By less, I mean, creating an environment in which they have less activities, less sports, and more time to complete these projects and their homework on their own.  I simply cannot believe that sitting in the driver’s seat for our children’s academic work can possibly help them.

It’s time for all of us to take a deep breath and move to the back seat.


Dr. Joan Simeo Munson earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver. She has worked with incarcerated individuals, families, adolescents, and college students in a variety of settings, including county and city jails, community mental health centers, university counseling centers, and hospitals. She also has a background in individual, group, and couples counseling. Dr. Munson lives in Colorado with her husband and three energetic children. She currently has a private practice in Boulder where she sees adults, couples and adolescents.

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  1. jennifer (Edit) Report

    I understand part of what is being said here but I did help my daughter. I’d say we did the entire science fair project together. The notes – she’d tell me what she wanted to say and I’d take notes then she had to rewrite it in her own handwriting then I’d type the final report. She is in fourth grade and getting her to write at all is huge so this worked. She didn’t want to do the thing at all but unlike many schools, her teacher made it a requirement, submitting it to the fair was optional.

    My daughter was so proud of that thing (and no – it was nothing close to Einsteen. ? Do all objects fall at the same rate of speed. She took a box of different things and dropped them from a height – I took pictures.) I definitely didn’t do the assignment but I was involved the entire time and when I talked to her teacher about it she said there was nothing wrong with that especially being her first project – in fact it was an excellant way to be part of her education and to encourage her. She gave one of the best presentations in the class. There is a balance – definitely I feel that (as the teacher said — a family project) my involvement encouraged her she wanted to do the best, she even decided to submit it to the fair and we attended our first science fair. She loved it and can’t wait til next year. I disagree that there should be no involvement on the parents behalf. It’s an opportunity to spend quality time with your child on an educational project that teaches them the education is important not just for them but to you.

  2. Cindy (Edit) Report

    I do agree that this is an issue of our day. As a former
    teacher, I thought I could handle homeschooling my
    daughter through middle school. I do find that the
    “no child left behind laws” have greatly influenced
    the school system to basically cram so much information
    into kids today that I have seen my daughter as well as
    a few other sensitive kids have nervous breakdowns.
    My daughter is on antidepressants and I don’t blame the school work for that, however, when I started as the
    teacher with her I really understood how much work is
    being expected of kids today. I’m not excusing the
    folks for doing their kid’s work. That’s not a good
    idea but there is a larger issue that was not an issue
    20 or 30 years ago. Kids are expected to do more than
    ever before. In my daughter’s math lessons each day
    there are 60 problems. I’m talking algebra in 8th grade,
    not times tables. Why is this book even printed this
    way? What math genius child could even complete these?
    They only assign 30 to do but still I see a problem
    that the educational system has this false idea that
    the more work they expect kids to do somehow this will
    translate to greater learning. I for one don’t think
    so and sometimes it leads me to do things as easy as
    possible to help her to just get it done and I’m sure
    this is behind some of why this is an issue now and was
    not an issue when I was growing up.

  3. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor (Edit) Report

    Mandy, what a great story. Thanks for sharing it — I couldn’t agree more.

    I remember the same phenomenon when I was a kid. I belonged to 4-H, and the daughter of the 4-H leader won grand prize at the fair every year — for her mother’s work!! (no matter the category entered, from sewing to pie baking. The mom also happened to be a home ec teacher.) It happened every single year, and was so disheartening for the kids who did their own projects. I knew this girl fairly well, and was even at her house to witness her mother (and father, too) doing her projects. I couldn’t figure out why it was allowed, especially since her mom was the troop leader. I have to say, it made me a little cynical about 4-H, and I ended up quitting and finding other things I enjoyed doing instead — basketball and children’s theater. (Neither of which could be done by a parent!)

    Just out of curiosity, what happens when kids or parents report other parents for cheating and doing their kids’ work for them? Or is that just not done? Just curious.

  4. mandy (Edit) Report

    When I was in the fifth grade, in 1965, we all made Valentine boxes. I made mine out of an old lamp shade, a doll, cardboard, aluminum foil, some yarn, crepe paper, and heart stickers. It was a girl in a long dress. The Valentines were inserted into the lampshade by lifting her train. It turned out beautifully. I kept it on top of the closet for many years afterward.

    From the idea through the fabrication, the project was all mine. We had the rule that the children’s school projects were to be done by the children.

    When I got to school, students said to me, “Your mother is quite talented.”

    I said, “Yes she is, but why did you say that?”

    “She made your Valentine box.”

    I emphatically denied it. I couldn’t understand why they would think a parent would do a student’s work for him.

    A prize was given for the best Valentine box. Mine didn’t win although it was clearly the most creative and the best executed design.

    A girlfriend of mine won. Her mother HAD made her box and it wasn’t nearly as nice as mine. The girl smiled a saccharine smile and accepted the prize. Her mother stood by beaming.

    Mind boggling.

    (This girl had cheated on Math in first grade. She had also cheated on the SRA reading workbooks in third grade. Yet she won a prize for her mother’s work. Her father was in school administration and athletics.)

    From this story, you can see that the problem of parents doing projects for students is not a new one.

    In my case, when a student did excellent work, it was automatically assumed by EVERYONE that the parent had done the work, not the student. When a parent did a less than excellent job for the student, the student won the prize for best box.

    As a parent and a grandparent, I still maintain the rule that the student does the student’s work and the parent is there as a resource only.

    I have told the Valentine box story to my children and emphasized that both my mother and I knew that I had done the work. We lost respect for the other student and her mother. Without being haughty or arrogant, we just didn’t see them the same way we had before the Valentine box situation.

    The lesson that was stressed is that honesty, doing your own work, and always doing your best is something that you can be proud of, no matter what. In the process the student develops skills, learns from mistakes, and gains self-esteem through independence and successful completion of projects.

  5. Dawna (Edit) Report

    When my child was in 6th grade, her teacher assigned approximately 12 hours of homework per week. The district stated curriculum was 6 hours. We spoke to her teacher, the principle and other parents and the response was to do our best and that was it. We finally met with the teacher, and told her that our daughter was going to do 1.5 hours per night and no more. If she was failed, we would take it to the district. The homework was then finally reduced a bit after this but we were branded as confrontational. There seems to be little tolerance for parent interaction unless it is at the school or teacher’s whim. Other parents were told to quit all other extracurricular activities and some kids even went to counseling do to their level of stress. So when it comes to helping, sometimes parents do know best.

  6. Ashley (Edit) Report

    I agree with the article, however it is not the least bit shocking to me. As a college student planning to graduate in May, I have witnessed numerous accounts of cheating, plaigerism and even heard of parents writing papers for their 18-22 yr old “young adult.”

    Although I do feel that your grade school kids are at times assigned more than they can handle, I do not agree with the parents taking over the responsibilities completely. That does not help the child learn/grow into an independent individual. If we are doing our kids work from the beginning then that is all they will know. Instead we should be guiding them along the way and helping out when needed. This will teach them responsibility as well as how to handle stressful situations.

  7. mrgrtwiley (Edit) Report

    Hi everyone. I have a responsible, intelligent 7 yr. old daughter in public school. I so desperately want to put her in private school. However, in my area, there is not many options. A Montessori school would fit her perfectly. Plus, I cannot afford it at this time. With that being said, I am so frustrated with the public school system. It is like our children are a bunch of cattle, and the school is only concerned about herding them from one grade to the next, based on nothing more than meeting the schools mandated curriculum. And the work that is expected out of these children can be quite overwhelming for children and parents alike. In order for my daughter to be able to accomplish her expected work load at school, she is only allowed to participate in one after school activity. Therefore we are not rushing around trying to get all sorts of things done during the week.
    As far as trying to get the school to work with us…..it is easier said than done. I have confronted my daughters school faculty, including the principal about a few issues, and I am now labeled as being difficult by the faculty. The principle will not meet with me, rather sends his aid out to speak to me. I am an educated concerned parent who is fully engaged in my daughters life. It’s like I’m being punished for having concerns instead of just letting the school think they know what is best for my child. I don’t get it. I am not even granted permission to walk my child to her class when she feels apprehensive about school. I’m talking maybe once a month or so. What are we supposed to do? It is so frustrating!!!
    I am hoping maybe our new president will do something with this “no child left behind” program to help ensure that our kids are treated like children and not cattle!!!

  8. Dr. Joan (Edit) Report

    Hi All! I’d like to hop in here and make a couple of points.

    First, if your child has special needs that make work more difficult or demanding, I would definitely agree that the amount of time parents put towards helping with homework would and should be much greater. This is not helicopter parenting–it’s helping.

    Second, if your school is not providing the services that your child needs for issues such as ADD or any learning disabilities, it is time to speak up loudly and clearly to your child’s teacher, the principal, the school board and your superintendent. I realize this can be easier said than done, but presenting yourself as a parent who isn’t backing down is the only way to get your child the help they need. Some of you who wrote said that you have been able to help your kids by direct communication with teachers and your school and I applaud you.

    Lastly, I continually hear about too much homework from parents. If this is a reason why you are doing your kids homework, then it is an issue that must be brought to the attention of the school. If your child’s teacher fails to listen, set up an appointment with the principal in order to show how much time is being spent on homework. I recommend having your child keep a log with the time spent doing their homework from each class. This can determine if there is a discrepancy among classes, with some teacher’s giving too much nightly work. I can’t guarantee this will help, but being proactive is the only way to get things to change.

  9. Wendy C (Edit) Report

    Hi, I have found that you are correct in your analyses. However, I also found out that my daughter actually was doing college work for other students (while still in high school) and they were getting A’s, she is extremely bright and I told her that she was clearly not to do other peoples writings and reports for them, how can they learn if someone else does the leg work for them? Parents should realize the same, they are not really helping, they are just making themselves feel better.

  10. Kris (Edit) Report

    Hi I just wanted to agree and say that partents do too much of there childrens school work. I have 3 boys and must say that my husband and I do not put our mark on any of there homework. We will check it over and send them back to rework it. Also, if they don’t get it done in time we let the teacher deal with that in school. My 5th grader notice at a Cub Scout pinewood derby race that the Tiger Cubs (1st graders) cars were winning all the awards not only in the racing but for design and paint jobs. Please first graders did not do it, everyone knows that there is some Dad’s that did all the work to live out their dreams of youth in Scouts. It is just sad to see older kids do the work and not get recognized for their own work be it in school or in an outside group.

  11. Lonice (Edit) Report

    Iagree our kids should complete their own projects, but I have a huge problem with the amount of homework assigned to our kids on school nights, my 15 yr old son comes home with so much homework that it is impossible to complete it by the next day,sometimes I am helping him with it for at least 2/3 hours at a time, and after that amount of time he is emotionally exausted to no end!I will admit that I have finished it for him so he can at least get a good night sleep to have a good day in school etc.His teacher one class has more than once assigned worksheets of up to ten pages that were due the very next day, I think that is rediculous to be honest.I am not trying to cut down teachers but i think they need to realize that our kids have other classes also that have work to complete.

  12. peterlor (Edit) Report

    I think most of the problem is that we look at our kids as a reflextion of us. They are seperate from us and are people. Give them the respect we want and the understanding they need. Treat them like they are smart enough good enough and are responceble enough to be themselves. This has nothing to do with school work and everthing to do with real relationships. Give a kid what he needs in life and school will be easy.

  13. careful (Edit) Report

    Hi, I read your article and wanted to make a comment. I agree with you in these cases. But still, I just helped finish my sons homework. His case is a bit different though. He has ADD and todays public school has hardly if no understanding to this focus problem. School are under preassure to perform in order to make it and get their potential money.
    Disabeled chidren bring down the average in schools. As a mother told me – when the children cant be quiet or keep up take them out. Still she is a single mother and we help her a lot with all kinds of problems. her kids are working well in school though…
    I would say that due to that parents help their children so much with their work they think the kids can do all this. many can not. The once that dont have help suffer as well as disabled children. My son has a high IQ and he has lots of friends in his class. they are worried that my son wont make it. MAny off his friends are the best and A students but they are on the other hand often depressed or under tremendous anxiety, frustration that they need my sons happy, creative somewhat easygoing ways. Unfortunatelly – lately y son is finally starting to loose his self asteem. The only method they have to support him in school is punishment system and preassure. He has been holding up fantasticly well but how long can a 13 year old hold up? He is giving up on school and to some degree trust in grown up and athority.
    So I helped him as I have done before. Some teacher will not take my help but I dont care. I rather have him understand and survive then fored to write down all answere and then forgett them the same time its done due to being over whelmed and under too much stress. This is not an easy issue and it needs to be delt with. Many children are suffering in school today. Any tips, experience or ideas in this -let me know. Thank you for your time!

  14. gnr (Edit) Report

    I work at a private university and I can tell you how
    often parents get involved- even at the college level!
    It’s unbelievable. Some of them seem to be taking
    over their kids’ lives. I don’t think this helps them
    become independent at all if they just call their parent
    and the parent takes care of everything. How will they
    succeed when the parent isn’t around or when they get a
    job? Working with college parents is definitely a
    challenge- some of them are very aggressive and
    unreasonable. My son is a freshman in college and I let
    him take care of his own things. If he asks me for
    advice (rarely), I will give it but I won’t do it for
    him. I want him to be able to handle things on his

  15. pauld (Edit) Report

    I generally agree that parents should not do projects for their children. However, I become frustrated when the school assigns a volume of homework that is unrealistic for the age of the child, or assigns projects that are too complex for all but the most advanced students to do without help.
    I generally try to stay away from providing help, but I have found myself roped in when my child legitmately becomes too stressed out by the amount of homework or when homework starts crowding out all outside activities.
    Last year was an extremely difficult year for my son who was in fifth grade. His teachers had little appreciation for how the amount of homework and projects they assigned were disrupting the lives of their students and their families.
    After the experience, we became more involved in selecting his teachers for the next year. We were able see him placed with much more realistic teachers. Now he does his homework by himself and on his own initiative so that the smaller amount he is assigned is far more beneficial to him.
    My bottomline is that not all the blame for this situation should fall on “helicopter” parents. I think teachers need to be realistic in their expectations of children.



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