X + Y = total frustration

Times Staff Writer

Eugene YOUNG is a smart guy. He has a master's degree, listens to Shakespeare tapes in the car and enjoys a successful career as a television producer.

But last year, he hit an academic wall -- his daughter's sixth-grade math homework. Something called the "order of operations." It had to do with exponents, parentheses and the jumble of arithmetic signs and numbers between them. Oh, who was he fooling? He didn't know.

"I felt stupid," said the 44-year-old producer of such shows as "Fear Factor" and "Big Brother." "I didn't know if I was giving her the right information anymore. It was very frustrating."

Young's predicament isn't at all unusual. Indeed, it's just one of a number of inevitable and bittersweet milestones in the parent-child homework relationship. Underneath its primary role of improving academic success, homework also frequently functions as a vital psychological bridge between parents and their increasingly restless children. It does so, say educators and psychologists, by providing a safe and reliable arena for the generations to hash out the age-old strains of growing up.

"Homework can be a lightning rod for the parent-child conflict," said Jeffrey K. Smith, an education professor at Rutgers' Graduate School of Education. "Certainly around adolescence, all sorts of problems can pop up that have nothing to do with math, science or history."

The practice of parents and children hitting the books together is more common than ever, according to educators. Nearly 60% report helping their children with homework assignments at least some of the time. Parents recognize, as many studies have shown, that academic prowess often translates into future success, and homework is viewed as a critical link in achieving excellence.

For parents and children alike, there's also a powerful psychological payoff to homework. The time spent interacting, working side-by-side toward a common goal -- as opposed to passively watching television together or battling each other on a computer game -- can be richly rewarding. The child receives undivided attention, while the parent fulfills his or her role as guide and teacher.

But as parents also frequently discover, homework can be a time of heated disputes. Some of the tension springs from the over-scheduled lives many parents and children lead. The cumulative pressures of after-school activities such as soccer or music lessons combined with the drudgery of the daily chore of homework are a recipe for short tempers.

"One of the main things parents don't realize is kids are at work every day," said John Carney, president of Carney Educational Services, a Los Angeles area tutorial service. "Then they have to come home and do more work. That's stressful. If you substitute the word 'work' for 'school,' then parents begin to get it.

"Kids are tired and don't want to do it. Parents don't have a lot of patience either because in many cases they've been at work all day," he added. "It can be a very combative time."

Rarely is the strife solely a result of philosophical differences over academics. Usually, its roots are in unrealistic parental expectations, over-involvement in their kids' lives and gradually shifting parental roles. "Quite often the issues go deep, especially in the middle school years when kids begin questioning the value of education, their motivation usually dips, and their focus changes," said Harris Cooper, a psychology professor and director of the Program in Education at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "All these values get played out over homework."

A heavy-handed approach should be avoided, no matter how pure parents think their intentions may be. Micromanaging, even in pursuit of the correct answer, will erode a child's self-esteem. And parents must be careful to restrain perfectionist tendencies and let the child make his or her own mistakes -- and learn from them, educators say.

"If every time a child struggles, Mom jumps in, the only lesson they learn is that when the going gets tough, Mom gets going," Cooper said. "Parents shouldn't be giving kids the answer, but direction on how to find it.

"Unless it's explicitly asked by the teacher, it's probably best to let them do it on their own," he added.

A chronically contentious atmosphere around homework, too, can signal a healthy sign of a child's growing independence. They can simply be saying, they don't want -- or need -- help anymore, say educators. In such cases, parents should back off.

Around the middle school years, a natural time of rising tension, parents typically run into trouble keeping up with their children academically, say educators. Usually, math is the culprit, though history and science aren't too far behind in sending a parent crashing headlong into their limits.

Many parents choose to put up the proverbial good fight before finally surrendering homework time. The decision accounts for thousands of parent classes and workshops offered by school districts from coast to coast.

Parents, too, are well known for horning in on so-called homework hotlines, a telephone service staffed by teachers that is there to help students. More than one service reported instances in which parents, intent on remaining the middlemen in the dissemination of knowledge, asked for guidance.

Overwhelmed parents have been a boon for the tutoring business, said Carney, who has more than 400 tutors on staff in the Los Angeles area. His service charges $42 an hour.

"Parents come to us all the time," said Carney. "They remember how to do fractions and percents, but the minute you hit algebra, oh, boy, that's it. They're as scared as the kids are."

Young, the TV producer, whose daughters are 9 and 11, tried another tack. He took a remedial math class at UCLA Extension. Though colleges and universities don't design such courses specifically for parents, they're popular with them nonetheless, said a spokeswoman for UCLA Extension.

"I'm going to stay involved as long as everyone feels comfortable and it's productive," said Young, who typically helps his daughters 30 minutes to an hour each weeknight.

Nevertheless, the moment still comes when the parent understands he or she can't help the child academically anymore.

"It's certainly hard for parents to realize they aren't as important in their child's life as they once were," Cooper said. "But what that means is that they have successfully taught the child the survival skills they need to get along without them."


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Lesson plan for parents

Be a stage manager. Make sure your child has a quiet, well-lighted place to do homework. Paper, pencils and dictionary should be easily available.

Be a motivator. Homework provides a great opportunity for you to tell your child how important school is. Be positive.

Be a role model. When your child does homework, don't sit and watch TV. If your child is reading, you read, too. If your child is doing math, balance your checkbook.

Be a mentor. When the teacher asks that you play a role in homework, do it. If homework is meant to be done alone, stay away.


Source: Harris Cooper, director of the Program in Education at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

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