In first grade, my son came home with a new school assignment — research poster on bats. His task? Look up some facts about bats, find some pictures of bats, and then put these facts and photos on a poster. He could not have been more excited about his first “big kid” project. He took it on with great energy and serious academic endeavor. I bought the poster board and helped him complete a Google search for some bat facts and photos. I showed him how to use the printer. And that was the extent of my involvement. I wanted him to take responsibility for his assignment. My son selected his facts. He typed them into a document. He printed and cut out photos and designed the entire poster.
As you can see from the photos below, he went about the project with great focus and pride. (He tells me that he does his most effective schoolwork without a shirt because the fresh air on his skin helps him concentrate…)
When my six-year-old first-grader does a project, I want it to look like a six-year-old kid in first grade did the work. I want my child to be proud of the effort and thought that went into completing the work. When I surveyed the school hallway later that week, the stenciled graphics and 3D models of bats and actual bat skeletons illegally pilfered from caves in Kentucky (OK, maybe not that last one) showed me that some parents in my son’s class disagreed with my philosophy.
I already was aware of the “parent project-doers” — a part of every classroom. My daughter is three years older than my son and has had her projects displayed against some of the finest work from her friends’ mothers. I have had moms tell me that they have stayed up until midnight gluing and researching and bedazzling. If I’m up at midnight? (And, unfortunately, I usually am…) Hopefully, it’s because I’m drinking a glass of wine and watching the same episode of Law and Order: SVU for the tenth time. Trust me. I’m not making my kid’s science fair trifold presentation look like it’s ready for peer review in an Ivy League graduate program.
What draws a mom to hijack her kid’s project and make it her own? Does she think that her child cannot handle the work alone? Think her offspring’s time is better spent doing something else? Is it that she will settle for nothing less than an A+ product? Or does she take pride in having the best-looking poster in the hallway—one that will make other moms take a second look? I know that some moms simply find the projects fun and want to do them. But I still don’t see that as a good reason for your kid not to do the project. Just do your own at the same time if you are so inclined!
My philosophy of being a hands-off school parent extends beyond refusing to affix glitter on, or mold golden coins for, a leprechaun trap. I also want my kids to take responsibility for their daily homework assignments, studying for tests, and getting supplies to school. As I tell my daughter on a regular basis, “I passed the fifth grade already. Now it’s your turn.” If she forgets to put her science homework in her backpack? She can take a zero on the assignment. If she chooses not to study for a quiz? She can earn the bad grade.
Now, this approach develops over time as my kids get older and have more school experience under their academic belt. I don’t have the same expectations for my eleven-year-old daughter as I did at age seven. But, I strongly believe in handing my kids more and more ownership over their own education as they progress through grade school. No longer do I sit with my daughter as she does her homework. I tell her to go to her desk and do it.
She knows to come to me with any questions. I am happy to look over anything she completed. However, I will not hold her hand through every question. (Figuratively speaking, of course . . . literally holding her hand would be really annoying as she tries to write.) And when she gets a paper back and doesn’t understand why a problem was marked wrong or a paragraph was covered in red ink? She knows it is her job to talk to the teacher about her concerns.
Please do not think I am not engaged in my children’s education. We discuss regularly what they are learning in school. I sit with them as long as they wish to review for an exam or to understand better a difficult concept. When needed, I will advocate for my children. I have requested meetings with teachers when concerned about something taking place in the classroom. I am far from an absentee parent. But I am just that . . . the parent. Not the student. Our roles must be distinct. You will never hear me saying, “We have a big test in math tomorrow” or “We have to finish a history project tonight.” Because WE don’t.
I know that opinions vary widely on the extent to which we should integrate into our kids’ work. Some moms feel that doing projects with their kids is a good way to bond over school and make what could be a difficult and frustrating task for a child more bearable. Others believe in checking grades online multiple times a week and being a constant and watching presence over school life. Some will add extra flourishes to posters or will bring in that math assignment that got left on the kitchen table.
But where do we draw the line? When does engagement in our child’s education—unquestionably important—hinder them from taking responsibility for their tasks? Pride in their own accomplishments? Accountability for mistakes made?