Just how much help should parents offer to their children? Like anything, it's a delicate balance, but a word with the school may also be a required assignment for mom and dad.
MUNICH — My children attend a primary school in Bavaria. For some time now, my wife and I have had to help them with homework on pretty much a daily basis because they may not have understood topics or because these topics have barely been discussed in class.
I asked the teachers why this is the case, and they answered that the syllabus is filled with so many topics that the children will have to try to research and understand some of them at home. Personally, I find that rather disconcerting. Why should parents should fulfill the role of teachers? Does it make sense to complain to the school administration?
Besides the comprehensible doubts about shifting some lessons from the classroom to the bedroom, I see a second dimension to the problem. In what way and to what degree should parents help their children with their homework?
But before we answer that question, let's to return to the original question. Yes, you should definitely ask the school administration if it really makes sense for children to study syllabus content with their parents at home while teachers excuse themselves by saying that there is too much to be taught during the school day.
A long-serving primary school principal in Bavaria says that students have to learn and study quite a lot, especially when the switch to a secondary school is on the horizon. "But," she says, "if teachers claim that they are not able to do this or that during lessons and that children should study these topics at home, I would say that something has gone horribly wrong at this school!"
The right balance
It is absolutely necessary to prepare and discuss homework with children at school. They should only practice content at home rather than having to research a subject completely from scratch.
Bavaria's own primary school guidelines seem to agree. "To allow students to practice the syllabus content and to encourage them to study independently, homework should be set so that students, with average ability, will be able to complete it in an hour," the guidelines say. They add that Sundays, holidays and school breaks should be "kept free from homework."
But Henrike Paede, acting director of the Bavarian Parents Association, is worried about something else. "If schools make such demands, children from educationally or financially disadvantaged strata will be handicapped," Paede says. The children of parents who are unable or unwilling to help with homework, or who don't have the resources to finance after-school tutoring, would lag behind their peers from primary school onwards. And it would be difficult to ever make up the deficit.
Paede therefore recommends that parents should definitely offer feedback to the school administration, pointing out that the content should be sufficiently taught in the classroom before assigning related homework. If teachers react as ours did, saying it's too much to teach in class, parents should contact the responsible educational authority.
It's actually quite normal for parents to help their children of primary school age with their homework on occasion. But in general, the primary school principal and the acting state director of the Parents Association recommend that parents stay in the background.
There are, of course, children that are in need of guidance or are easily distracted, but the primary school principal suggests that "you should hold back from helping them with their homework. That is the only way for children to learn how to organize themselves." Primary school children should be encouraged to be as independent as possible.
Doing their homework, studying, packing their books and notebooks, are things children should be able to do independently from fourth grade onwards at the latest. The more parents help their primary school children, says the principal, the bigger the problems become at the secondary school level. There is an "enormous difference" in expectations placed on students between fourth grade and fifth grade.
"Children should be allowed to make mistakes when doing their homework," says Paede. Because it is only then, during the next day's lesson, that the teacher will be able to see what the students have already understood and where potential difficulties lie. The amount of time spent on homework should not exceed 30 minutes per day for a first grade student. From second grade onwards, a maximum of one hour per afternoon is appropriate, according to the Parents Association.