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A frequently asked question from the Math Forum's T2T service.

How can I help my child with his/her homework?

Many parents are uncomfortable helping their children with math homework. The parent may feel that his own proficiency is being tested, and may be nervous about appearing uncertain (let alone ignorant) in front of his child. Because of the discomfort, there is a tendency for the parent to overcompensate by solving the problem, telling the child the right answer and then explaining the solution. Frequently, this is not the best way to promote the child's learning.

Ideas for helping your child through guidance and encouragement:

The first thing to remember is that this is your child's homework, not yours. It doesn't do him any good for you to come up with the solution for him. It does do a great deal of good for you to sit down and think about it together. Entertain his ideas rather than suggesting ideas of your own. He doesn't have to arrive at "the right answer" in order to have a deep and successful learning experience; and certainly you don't have to solve the problem at all.

Think about helping your child with the goal of enhancing his experience of problem-solving, rather than "getting the assignment done." The assignment is a vehicle for stimulating exploration. Often a tangential experience of discovery can be deep and memorable, far more valuable to your child in the long run than the "successful" completion of an assignment. Resist the pressure to be efficient and straightforward.

If your child says, "I don't know where to start," counsel him to start with what he knows. Ask him about definitions, about simpler versions of the problem that he does know how to solve, about examples he's seen in class, what he remembers about how they were done, how they are the same as the present problem and how they are different. The more your child feels stuck, the more appropriate it may be to go back to a much simpler version of the problem, and to build up from there, adding one complication at a time. Get him to think aloud. Validate his curiosity. Offer lots of acknowledgment along the way, marking his progress.

You don't need to be a math expert in order to help your child; in fact if you already know the answer you must avoid the temptation to explain it to him, short circuiting the discovery process that is the real value of the assignment.

That's not to say it doesn't help for you to know the answer before you start. Your knowledge helps you to pose appropriate questions for your child, to see the "next" discovery coming, and to offer challenges that are right at the edge of his ability, yet which build toward the understanding he needs for the problem at hand. You may be able to see relationships that your child does not yet see. Seize the moment to remind your child of an insight that he had recently that may be useful in the present situation. You may hear your child articulate a line of thought that reveals a misconception. It will be very helpful to ask questions that lead him to a contradiction, or conflict between two views that he holds.

Your attention is a gift to your child. By sitting with him as he does his homework, you are being a good parent, doing the right thing. You convey the message that your child's work is important and that you care about him. It is this, and the shared experience of discovery, that will contribute to the establishment of competence and confidence that makes your child a growing mathematician.

       -- Josh Mitteldorf
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