Culture & Entertainment

How to help your child with a school project (or not)

By: Jennifer Gruden
Canadian Living
Culture & Entertainment

How to help your child with a school project (or not)

By: Jennifer Gruden

How do you know how much help to give for a school project in elementary school without becoming a helicopter parent? I don't know, but here's our story of how we probably shot past helicopter parenting to smothering. When my son brought home his assignment for the third grade History Fair I had no idea that a few weeks later I'd be questioning my husband's and my ability to parent him. Picking a good topic for your kid's grade three project, or "the destiny of man is in his own soul." – Herodotus At first glance, it seemed a straightforward enough assignment: "It's around the 1800s in Upper Canada, there are the existing First Nations peoples and French settler communities. Task: Students are to select an aspect of the First Nations people or the Pioneers and research that event, thing or person." Noah decided to choose forts. Feedback came home from his teacher that "forts might be hard to research." But, but but -- pretty much every schoolchild in Toronto gets to visit Fort York, established in 1793, which is 20 minutes from my house. Fort York - Morale I should have stepped away from the project right then. But as a Formerly Gifted Child ™ who was given attention way too often as a child for knowing things, this project was now officially A Thing. I did what any mother in my position would do: I took to Facebook to share this "research" issue and get praise from my friends for being a mother who introduces her kid to primary sources. Soon Noah and I were headed for Fort York. It was a great day, and I was riding high on parent achievement points, or at least my high horse. How much work should your kid do on his own in grade three? Or "history is a set of lies agreed upon." – Napoleon After a couple of weeks of library visits, planning, note-taking, and drafting we got to the weekend before the due date – Mother's Day weekend. It's relatively easy, I find, to let Noah do his own work weeks before the deadline. But staring at 48 hours left before this project had to be done, I found myself with the standard set of questions any Gen-X parent who had the only Science Fair project with the crooked and progressively smaller misshapen bubble letters while the other kids had wired light-up signs ("but at least you did it all on your own, honey") would have:
  • Does my son really have to look up every word he has misspelled? Do I have to not put my finger on all of them first to hint that they might be?
  • If I help type, is that cheating?
  • Does "helping to use the glue gun" mean it's okay to also make sure the sides will match up when they are glued, which also means drawing up the plans for the fort walls?
And of course most importantly:
  • Will this make my kid look bad, feel bad, or hate history or hard work forever?
My sage friend, who is sage in part because her child has not yet entered kindergarten, reminded me that the point of an education is for the child to learn the material, not to hit the perfect balance between humiliation and self-reliance. His project is not all about me. But…these projects at home really actually are, in grade three, about our family. They are where classroom learning and home learning intersect. In grade one, we didn't help our child label his diagram of a thing he'd invented and built himself (not kidding!) and so he was docked marks down to a B-. So Carl and I had a chat and agreed that this time, our kid was going to have an awesome fort. Working together on a school project, or "once more into the breach, dear friends." – Henry V Back when Carl and I owned a fixer-upper home and had no kids, every time we had a massive argument 4/5ths through a renovation project I told myself we were just working out all our communication issues before we had kids. We learned lots about each other. One of us is the person who researches and starts the project. The other one would sit with a toilet you "only have to plunge a few times a week" for months. However that person also builds things that are straight and never fall down even if it takes months. We learned to work together…or perhaps to stay out of each other's way…well, at least we have learned when to hire help. What no one told me then was that every school project with our kids would end up just like every home renovation project. So one of us read the assignment, put the library books on hold, sat down to help with the writing, and planned the fort: Foam core board, glue gun sticks, and poster paints to make everything the right Little House on the Prairie brown. And the other one took 4 hours to measure and build incredibly precise fort walls that would seriously outlast almost any battle, as well as came up with the scheme of re-measuring and cutting the walls out of construction paper to make them the appropriate brown with a better texture and add more detail to the windows. All of which resulted in our entire family hitting Mother's Day at 4:30 p.m. – on a lovely spring weekend -- sick to death of forts, squabbling ("why didn't you use poster paint!") and with several child-hours ahead of finishing off the project. At which point my son said "oh, but Mr. B. changed the due date. It's not due until May 20 th!" Carl and I looked at each other. We looked at our kitchen table. And we decided to believe our child. Plus, by giving into temptation and going outside, we would be fighting childhood obesity! Win-win! Then Monday morning dawned and with it my good sense. What was the chance that an 8-year-old on a sunny afternoon would optimistically make up a change in due date? Pretty high. But, it was 7 a.m. So I got the kids fed, dressed and in the car and we headed off to drop-off...where, yes. There were a lot of kids going into the school with their History Fair projects. I asked Noah if he saw anyone from his class holding a project and he said he thought he saw his classmate G. with one. So I turned the car around and called in late to work. And then my son and Carl and I finished off his project as a team. Not the best educational lesson, but I hope a good family lesson in supporting each other. You might think that's the end. But no. Carl drove Noah to school with his hastily-finished project and took it upstairs, where he met up with Mr. B. In fact the deadline had been changed for Noah's class. Noah was mad, we were a bit red-faced, and now we had a project that may or may not have taught our son his parents are crazy. I think the real history lesson here is when you're dealing with homework be prepared to meet your Waterloo. But I am consoled at the fact that Fort York was blown up in 1813 by the British in order to prevent it from falling into American hands. And now it sits at the heart of a thriving city. Maybe we haven't ruined our child…yet. Be better than my husband and I and read How to help kids with homework without being a helicopter parent.
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How to help your child with a school project (or not)

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