The Cardinal Sin of Parenting Teens

Everyone is hurt when parents do teens’ homework.

Posted Feb 02, 2015

When a child is growing up, it’s not uncommon for a parent to act as a second teacher. High school is different. Teenagers need to be weaned off parental guidance, because like it or not, you can’t go to college with them. High school is an important transition period during which it can be tempting for parents to remain overly involved.

My husband and I were annoyed when friends would not go out to dinner or arrive late because one of the children had a high school paper due the next day. They felt compelled to oversee every detail of that paper. Our annoyance turn to disbelief when their children emailed papers home from college for review and corrections with conversations about topic, approach, main points and the like preceding their parents’ final review. Oh, yes, they received fabulous grades all through high school and college. And, oh, yes, their parents were proud. But how did the students feel and what did their teachers know?

I think Rebecca Deurlein, Ed.D., author of Teenagers 101: What a Top Teacher Wishes You Knew About Helping Your Kid Succeed, will not be surprised to read my account. In her almost 20 years teaching teens, she has heard and seen all variations on overprotective, overly engaged parents helping their teenagers academically.

Deurlein shares an anecdote about trying to help her own children with their homework. Her kids repeatedly rebuffed her offers to look at their papers, despite her status as a high school English teacher. Finally Deurlein’s daughter opened up: “Mom, I love you, but when I have an assignment, I work hard on it. I don’t want you to change it or fix it. That feels like you’re judging something that I created and am proud of. Besides, I want to find out what grade I get based only on my work, not anyone else’s. How will I ever know what I’m capable of if I count on you to go behind me and fix everything?”

If you treat teens like they’re incompetent, they will be.

Too much emphasis on teens’ schoolwork can be harmful. Parents need to look at high school as a transition for letting go. In just a few short years your teen with be a legal adult, and bosses and professors will treat them as such.

“Everyone- and I mean everyone- is hurt by your decision to do your kid’s homework,” Deurlein says. In her book she writes:

You tell your children that they are incapable of doing grade-level work they should be perfectly capable of doing. In other words, they are not smart enough.
You tell your children’s teachers they are idiots who can’t tell the difference between a ninth-grader’s project and a sophisticated parent-completed project.
You tell everyone at the school you have no respect for what they’re trying to do. The teacher who assigned that project is planning to get valuable information from it, including whether your children understood the concepts and whether the class can move forward. Now the assignment is worthless to her as an indicator of student understanding
You teach your children it’s okay to cheat and lie if it means they’ll get a better grade in the end.”

Research universally indicates that parental involvement is linked to improved grades. And that starts early. Parents’ attitudes about education in the early years have a big influence on a child’s academic success. A new study in the journal Pediatrics “shows that the factors influencing children's readiness for kindergarten include not only whether they attend preschool, but also their families' behaviors, attitudes and values -- and that parents' expectations go a long way toward predicting children's success throughout their schooling.”

However, too much help in high school can be disastrous to not only a child’s academic studies, but also their sense of self-worth. “Teens want to know that you believe in them and respect them,” says Deurlein. “They want you to have confidence in their ability to solve problems. If you treat teens like they’re incompetent, they will be.”

Deurlein explains: Many teens will want help from their parents, and if your child asks you for assistance with their homework, you should feel free to lend a hand. But unsolicited advice can make them feel inferior, like you don’t think they’re smart enough to handle the work on their own.

“A serious student should be able to look at one bad grade and take it on himself to work harder in the future and bring his or her average up before report cards come home,” she says. “Most teachers know that no single grade is indicative of the full potential of any one student. That’s why they test them in a variety of ways. Parents need to be more accepting of one bad slip and allow their kids to pull their grades back up. Trust is the key. It’s only time to get involved when you notice a pattern of bad grades.”

In an age where grades are posted online, sometimes the same day a student takes a quiz, it can be tempting for parents to check grades too often. Deurlein tells of parents calling up teachers to discuss a grade that just went up before they’ve even had a chance to talk to their child about it. And what most parents don’t realize is that teachers have access to information like how often grades are being checked online. In one instance discussed in her book, a parent was checking their daughter’s grades 14 times a day!

Helping in a healthy way

So what should you do to transition your teen into adulthood in a healthy way? Deurlein suggests that you show interest in their lives by asking relevant (but not prying) questions. Attend the school events they invite you to. Help them acquire the resources and skills they need to complete their work and succeed. Lead by example and create an environment conducive to learning at home. Offer, not insist, to check their homework for errors.

As your teen gets ready for college, it’s time to let them stand on their own and tackle their assignments independently. In Rebecca Deurlein’s view, doing your child’s homework in high school is the cardinal sin of parenting.

 In Teenagers 101, she provides parents ample evidence and ways to avoid being a “sinner”: how to motive teens, when to get involved and when to step back, how to get your teen to accept responsibility and most importantly how to stop treating your teenagers as if they were children.

Related: When Does Mothering Become Smothering? Part 1; How Parents Miss the Point of Report Cards; How “Push Parenting” Becomes Child Abuse; Preparing Your Toddler for College


Deurlein, Rebecca. (2015). Teenagers 101: What a top teacher wishes you knew about helping your kid succeed. New York: American Management Association.

Deurlein, Rebecca. Blog: A Teacher's Guide to Understanding Teenagers.

Larson, K., S. A. Russ, B. B. Nelson, L. M. Olson, N. Halfon. Cognitive Ability at Kindergarten Entry and Socioeconomic Status. Pediatrics, 2015; 135 (2): e440 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2014-0434

Copyright @2015 by Susan Newman

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