How To Do Life

Fresh ideas about career and personal issues

Parenting: Part II

Your child's education: What is worth your time?

Part I discussed how to decide which battles to pick and how to win without you or your child incurring collateral damage.

How involved do you need to be?

Unless your child has exceptional needs, you’ll have done your part if you just choose your child’s school well, occasionally try to get your child in a certain teacher’s class, and set things up so homework gets done without your being too involved.

Choosing a school.  

In many school districts, subject to any racial balance restrictions, you can get your child into any school in the district. But how to pick?

The strongest correlate of a school’s student achievement is its student body’s socioeconomic status. The richer the parents, the better the achievement. That’s not surprising in that wealthier parents, on average, are of higher ability and achievement and pass that on to their kids both genetically and in providing an enriched home environment.

If you have a low-achieving child, you’re faced with a dilemma. All schools claim to meet all kids’ needs but fact is, if a school is filled with high achievers and yours is not, chances are that less instructional time will be appropriately leveled for your child. Verify if that’s true using the method I outline below but, in the end, you may be left with a tough choice. You could put your child in a high-performing school in which the student role models are better but the work is often too difficult and, even if it’s not, your child may find it tough to swallow usually doing worse than most classmates. The question may come down to whether your child is more likely to thrive as a little fish in a big pond or the opposite.

Beyond the student body’s socioeconomic status, a school’s key characteristic is teaching quality. Don’t get seduced by attractive facilities nor the tour provided to parents nor even an impressive-sounding curriculum. Best is to ask the principal’s permission to visit a few classrooms, particularly those in the first few grades your child would be in. You usually can get a good feel just by, for a few minutes, standing in the back of a class or, if the class is doing seat- or groupwork, wandering around, asking a few children to show their notebook binder or other compendium of their work. Are  the work and lesson interesting? On a level that seems appropriate for your child? Is reasonable feedback given on written assignments? 

Even if you’re not given permission to visit classes (a bad sign,) walk down the halls, peeking in or at least listening to what’s going in multiple classrooms: Do the kids seem alive and engaged? Look at what’s on the walls and whiteboard: fascinating work products or threatening warnings about bad behavior? Would your child be inspired or at least interested by what the teacher and kids are saying? Does the material seem appropriately leveled for your child?

Also hang out on the schoolyard during recess. Are most kids behaving in a way that you feel would be good for your child?

Choosing your child’s teacher.

This matters most in elementary school, where kids have the same teacher all day.

Few principals will allow a parent to choose their child’s teacher each year. Every few years is about the most you can expect. So each spring, chat with parents and/or visit the next grade’s teachers to get a sense of whether the choice of teacher will likely make a big difference for your child. For example, if you have an intellectually advanced child and only one of the two teachers in the next grade is great with bright kids, that’s a year to ask the principal. Of course, don’t couch your request as “Ms X is a better teacher” but “Ms. X is a better fit for my child’s needs.”


Key is to establish a regular homework time. Many kids, having been in school all day, would rather get exercise or otherwise play right after school. For them, perhaps allocate a block right before dinner because, after dinner, food coma and general fatigue is more likely to set in.

Regarding location, some kids like their parent or babysitter in the same room. That's fine as long as it doesn’t tempt your child into manipulating you into doing too much of their homework.

Your role in homework should be just to help your child get past stubborn roadblocks. Give just enough help so your child can continue solo. Do more and your child gets the message that even when work is, with effort, doable, s/he can escape responsibility by whining.

Part III, which will be posted tomorrow:

  • How much freedom to give your child
  • How strictly to enforce rules.
  • My opinions on after-school activities, for example, music lessons.

Marty Nemko was named “The Bay Area’s Best Career Coach” by the San Francisco Bay Guardian and he enjoys a 96 percent client-satisfaction rate. In addition to the articles here on, many more of Marty Nemko's writings are archived on Of his seven books, the most relevant to readers of this blog is How to Do Life: What They Didn’t Teach You in School. Marty Nemko's  bio is on Wikipedia.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 

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