CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Experts have been divided in their advice to parents about how they can optimize their children’s academic, emotional and social development.
In a new study of more than 480,800 families, psychologists at the University of Illinois found that the more involved parents were in their children’s schooling, the better the children’s academic achievement, motivation and social adjustment. The effects were consistent regardless of the child’s age, race or socioeconomic status.
However, parents may want to be cautious about helping children with their homework. Greater parental involvement in children’s homework was linked with lower academic achievement, said the study’s authors, postdoctoral research associate Michael Barger and psychology professor Eva Pomerantz.
Barger and Pomerantz analyzed the findings of more than 440 recent studies,exploring the effects of parents’ involvement on children’s academic achievement, engagement and motivation; their social and emotional functioning, such as cooperative and prosocial behavior, and self-esteem; and delinquent behaviors like substance use and aggression.
Barger and Pomerantz also examined whether the type of parental involvement mattered – for example, if attending parent-teacher conferences or other events at the school had different effects than engaging in intellectual or cultural activities with the child outside of school. And they looked at the impact of the parent helping the child with homework.
“We saw a very consistent relationship between parents’ involvement in children’s schooling and children’s adjustment, and that is true across a variety of different types of parental involvement, regardless of the children’s age and the demographics of their families,” Barger said.
Parental involvement was not only linked to how well children performed academically but also to better social and emotional well-being.
“This is important because some investigators have argued that parents’ involvement in children’s schooling doesn’t have consistent benefits,” Pomerantz said. “This meta-analysis suggests that although there’s some variability, most children do better when their parents are involved.”
Although the links between parents’ involvement and children’s adjustment were consistently positive, there were some minor differences in the strength of the association, depending on the child’s age, the researchers found.
For example, preschoolers appeared to benefit more academically from engaging in intellectually stimulating home-based activities such as reading with their parents or family outings to the library than from their parents’ presence at school.
Conversely, greater academic achievement and motivation in elementary school and middle school students were associated with family discussions about what they learned in class, parental encouragement and cognitively stimulating activities.
However, parental involvement with homework was sometimes disadvantageous. Children’s academic achievement was lower when parents were more involved with their homework, although it did not appear to interfere with the children’s motivation to learn, the researchers said.
The researchers hypothesized that homework involvement may be particularly sensitive to the quality of the parent’s interactions with the child. Parents who are intrusive – or who do the child’s homework for them – may prevent children from building the necessary academic skills, the researchers said.
Children may benefit more if they’re given the autonomy to do the work themselves and if parents step in only when the child asks for help or the parent notices that they’re struggling, Pomerantz said.
Most importantly, perhaps, the researchers said parents need not feel as if they’re failing their child if they’re not minutely involved in every facet of the child’s education or they’re not devoting every free hour to enrichment activities.
“Some experts make the case that you must go to all the parent-teacher conferences and open houses, and take your child to the library, and so on, if you want to optimize your child’s learning,” Pomerantz said. “What we found is that parents don’t have to do every single one of these things. These types of involvement are all similar in terms of how much they matter. Just pick what works for your family.”
The study was accepted for publication in an upcoming issue of the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin.