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What Really Matters to Your Child's Success in School

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Apr 10, 2014
I'm a forward-thinking guy. I don't think much about the past. What's done is done, as they say. But when it comes to my role as a father, I sometimes reflect on how well I've done in that role, especially now that I have a daughter in college and one who is just a few years away from joining her.

My approach with my daughters has been to help them only when necessary and let them figure out the rest for themselves. When they come to me with a question or problem, I answer with or ask a question to see whether and how much they've tried to answer the question or address the problem. Only when I listen to their response can I determine whether my help is really needed and, if so, whether I need to intervene or simply provide guidance or a friendly ear. If my help isn't needed--only desired--I tell them, in a supportive tone, that they have it within them to figure it out.

what really matters to your child's success in schoolI recently reflected on what role I played in my children's academic success. Both of my girls have done really well in that regard, and I'm oh so grateful. They've succeeded despite my lack of involvement in helping them with homework and holding their feet to the fire where grades are concerned, two things parents must do for their children's academic success, at least based on what I've heard from most experts on this sort of thing. I've felt guilty--extremely guilty at times--for this sin of omission. 

So I felt a bit vindicated by a recent ground-breaking study--covering 30 years of longitudinal studies--that revealed how little parents' involvement in their children's schools matters to their children's academic success. (Ironically, one of the study's authors resides at the University of Texas at Austin where my daughter is enrolled.) That's right...you heard me. You got it all wrong if you thought attending your child's school events, parent-teacher meetings, joining the PTA or PTO, or helping your child choose her or his high school courses would matter. The kinds of parent-involvement activities in schools that are so ballyhooed by school administrators and government efforts like No Child Left Behind don't mean squat. Even helping your child with her or his homework--especially if your child is in middle and high school--is a waste of time. In fact, it can actually backfire and hurt your child's prospects for good grades.

Is there anything parents do that does matter in helping their children succeed in school? At the risk of sounding arrogant, yes--exactly what I've done. Leave your child alone. Don't help with homework because you might screw them up. Don't get in her or his face about grades. And never, ever ground your child for a bad grade. (I can't tell you how many parents of my girls' friends have tried that one and failed. If they're really struggling, get them a tutor.) Your child will do just fine without you.

Instead, apply the following tips that this ground-breaking study found really matter:

1) When your children are young, read to them daily. Children who learn to read well at an early age are more likely to succeed in school. If you need tips for raising great readers, we have a helpful post titled, 6 Ways to Show Your Child that Reading is Awesome.

2) As your children age, encourage them to ask critical questions of you and others. As long as they're respectful, allow your children to challenge you at home. As they become more comfortable challenging you, they'll become more comfortable challenging others. Asking lots of questions and challenging the status quo becomes more valuable to children as they move into higher levels of our education system.

3) Set clear expectations and then take a back seat. The researchers found that successful college students had parents who were clear about what they expected of their children. (Getting good grades is no exception.) Rather than micro-manage their children's education, these parents stepped aside and let their children find their own paths to success.

4) Help your children get into classes with good teachers. More than choosing the right courses, what matters most is who teaches those courses. If your school has some flexibility in teacher selection, do your homework. Ask parents you know whose children have had certain teachers about the quality of those teachers. By the time children get in middle and high school, they often know who are the good and bad teachers.

Another tip that is hinted at, but not explicitly mentioned in the study, is one that I've found works extremely well.

5) Encourage your children to do homework in groups and with friends who succeed in subjects your child struggles in (or in which your child just needs a little help every now and then). One of the reasons helping your child with homework can backfire is parents are too far removed from their own schooling to help. They often forget how to do certain forms of math, for example, and develop bad grammar and writing habits. Moreover, the ways in which subjects are taught today can differ dramatically from the ways in which they were taught 15, 20, or 30 years ago. A better tactic is for your child to study in a group of peers who are exposed to the same teaching approaches/techniques or with a friend who really gets the subject in which your child needs help.
I would be remiss if I didn't return to the idea of getting involved in your child's school. It's not a bad idea to get involved in this way. Indeed, it shows your child that you value his or her education because it communicates a high expectation for the importance of school and a good education. I have attended every school event I could, but not because I thought it would help my children get good grades. It was simply a way to show them my love as an involved, responsible, committed dad.

Topics: General Fatherhood Program Resources, General Fatherhood Research & Studies

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