Tips & Advice

Why I Help My Child with Writing Assignments (But You Shouldn’t)

by Denise Schipani

Photo credit: Vico Collective/Alin Dragulin; Collection: Blend Images

Writing this post very nearly brought me to tears. I also very nearly backed out of writing it. Could I fake an illness or claim it was a misunderstanding? I found I had to drag myself, kicking and screaming (figuratively) to my keyboard, to write about the thorny issue of whether, as parents, we ought to be helping our kids with school reading and writing assignments.

Why?

Because at the same time I was contemplating what to write myself, I was in the middle of helping my seventh grader with one of his dreaded IRPs (Independent Reading Projects) for the English class he’s currently in danger of failing. The irony was just too painful. Who the heck was I to dole out advice about stepping back and letting the kid sink or swim? By the way, that’s a stance that I take very seriously. (There’s a whole chapter in my book about letting kids fail.) I’m the mom who watched my boys repeatedly fall off the monkey bars. If lunch is left in the fridge, it stays there. If gym clothes or musical instruments or reading logs are forgotten? I don’t even take them up to the bus stop on the corner, much less all the way to school. Fail and learn, child, is my motto.

However.

Letting this kid fail this assignment was not going to teach him a damn thing. He wasn’t avoiding the project for the usual foot-dragging, middle-school, I’d-rather-watch-hockey reasons, the way he avoids piano practice, or showers. He was doing it because reading, and comprehending what he reads, and writing down his thoughts and impressions of what he reads? That’s about as impossible for him as it would be for me to write this essay in German. He wouldn’t fail in a noble, sitcom-ready “learning moment.” He would fail with misery, with a deep, lonely feeling in his heart. I know this.

I did my due diligence for this story, however, and I’ll tell you: Don’t help your kids with their writing. What they turn in should be authentic, it should be warts and all, it should be their voice, with their grammar errors and missed opportunities to make connections between literature and life. I asked friends and colleagues for their takes, and here’s what I got:

  • Editing is cool. Says one pal, “My son types a draft, and then I sit at the computer and ask questions, like, ‘Why did Paul Revere do that?’ Then I ask if I can add in facts he just told me.”
  • Laying off is even better: A teacher I know and respect says she specifically confines writing assignments to the classroom so that parents can’t get involved (smart). Another friend says she gives her 8- and 11-year-olds space — literally (as in a desk in a quiet area) and figuratively, in which to work.
  • Teaching strategies is smart. The mother of a 9-year-old who has trouble organizing his thoughts swears by index cards. Maybe it’s the small space; it’s less daunting than a blinking cursor or blank notebook. Another parent — a few, actually — turned their reluctant readers on to audiobooks, which they can follow along with in the printed book. Great idea.

Incidentally, I’ve tried all these. It’s just a fact — for now — that my son needs that help, that kind of help. He’s twelve, on the spectrum, and bright as all hell. He came pre-loaded with an adult appreciation of irony and a sophisticated sense of humor. He’s practically in charge of his middle school math classroom, to hear his teacher tell it — there, he oozes confidence. But in English? Nope. He can read — as in, he can read all the words on the page. But then, as he describes it, he looks away, and turns his eyes back — a moment later, a day later — and has no clue what he’s read. Asked to write down anything about it (and these days, they’re asking more than a simple summary) and he freezes. Panics. Sits and stares at walls or scribbles vaguely at something else, anything else.

So I help. I read aloud, I direct him back to the text over and over, I ask leading questions. (Sometimes I even say, sweetheart, write this down. Write this down.)

We get it done. We hope for the best.

Oh, and if art or illustration is required? We ask his little brother for help with that. (Don’t tell!)

 

How do you feel about helping your child with their reading and writing assignments?

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