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Helping with homework? Homework as a site of tension for parents and teenagers

Helping with homework? Homework as a site of tension for parents and teenagers
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  Helping with homework? Homework as a site of tension for parents and teenagers 1  British Educational Research Journal, 2002 28 (4) 603-622Yvette Solomon, Jo Warin, Charlie Lewis Abstract The setting of homework is strongly encouraged by the DFEE on the assumption thatsupport from parents, once gained, is unproblematic and useful. However, a number of researchers (Goodnow & Collins, 1990; Levin et al, 1997; Cowan et al, 1998) haveobserved the possibility of a negative impact of homework on families. This paper presentsinterview data from families with teenagers, in which homework was described as asignificant site of parent-teenager tensions. For many parents, homework was invested withthe opportunity for reparation for their own scholastic failures or lost opportunities. Othersfelt that they lacked the competence to help and were disenfranchised by homework demands. Parents’ concerns about their children’s futures create a climate of pressure tosucceed as they support a homework agenda that is not necessarily their own and whichthey have little power to influence. 1   This research on which this paper is based was funded by the Joseph RowntreeFoundation. 1  Introduction Homework plays a central role in relationships between many parents and teenagers. For some parents, it provides a way of ‘keeping in touch’ as school-home relationships becomemore distant than they were at primary school (MacBeath et al, 1986); for some it is an only point of contact between parent and child (Langford et al, 2001). Such contact may be ahighly rewarding experience (Morgan & Richardson, 1997) but it is also a source of conflict(see, for example, Beresford & Hardie, 1996). As the work of Bastiani (1997), Bastiani &Wolfendale (1996), Wolfendale & Bastiani (2000) and Epstein (2001) shows, home-schoolrelationships are fraught with difficulty, especially when children reach secondary schoolage; parents’ roles are ill-defined and their potential to contribute is frequentlymisunderstood by teachers and parents alike. Nevertheless, schools are encouraged to sethomework on the assumption that parents will provide the necessary support (OFSTED,1995; DFEE, 1998). Indeed, the DFEE Guidelines on Homework in Primary and Secondary Schools in England and Wales (1998) suggests that parental commitment tohomework is critical, and that schools should work towards 'A learning partnership with parents'  underpinned by written guidance on the ways in which parents and carers cansupport pupils' homework by providing an appropriate environment, encouragement and praise, and making it clear that they value homework and support the school. Furthermore, parents should be encouraged - with teacher guidance - to get actively involved in jointhomework activities, although it is recognised that 'some parents may find supporting their children with homework or home activities difficult and schools may find it a challenge toenlist their help'. (DFEE 1998, p.15). Schools are invited to follow good practice examplesdescribed in the Guidelines , but the concentration on good home-school relations, leafletsfor parents and whole school policies in model schools- does not fully acknowledge or explore the many reasons why parents might find supporting homework difficult, nor does itrecognise that homework support is a complex issue which – although it can have clear  positive outcomes - frequently leads to conflict and anxiety within the family. Parental participation in homework  The assumption of an unequivocal benefit of homework is based on school survey reportssuch as OFSTED (1995). An important caveat, however, is that many such reports are onlyconcerned with overall school effects rather than individual attainment, background or experience. A wider research trawl shows that relationships between homework andachievement are in fact complicated and difficult to assess. Such complexity isdemonstrated by the considerable variation in focus of the available research: studies haveinvestigated the relationship between the amount of time spent on homework and individualattainment (Holmes & Croll, 1989; Tymms & Fitzgibbon, 1992; Farrow et al, 1999); wholeclass attainment (Dudley & Shawver, 1991; Tymms & Fitzgibbon, 1992); perceived schooleffectiveness (Barber et al, 1997); and achievement of pupils from different social backgrounds (Holmes & Croll, 1989). Research has considered the effectiveness of different types of homework (Cooper, 1989), its impact on the development of independentstudy (Warton, 1997), gender differences in compliance with homework demands (Harris etal 1993; MacBeath & Turner, 1990), and pupil attitudes in general (Keys et al, 1995).Policy makers have also seen homework as an important bridge between home and school,as the DFEE guidelines illustrate. Such policy recommendations make two major assumptions, however: 1] that all parents are similarly positioned in educational, economicand cultural terms with respect to schools; and 2] that support, when it is given, isunproblematic in terms of its impact on parent-child relationships. A wide range of research suggests that at least the first of these assumptions should be questioned. Lareau 2  (1987, 1989) identifies educational and cultural mis-matches between middle class andworking class parents in their dealings with schools, while Edwards & Warin's (1999) work in areas of high parental alienation from school and significant ethnic minority populationsdemonstrates that school strategies for parental involvement were based on assumed parental deficits which did not match with the parents' own concerns for their children'swelfare. Similarly, Cairney (2000) and Bastiani (1997) have argued that schools need torespond to the diverse cultural resources of families rather than attempting to simplytransmit school knowledge to them. Research has identified a number of obstacles in theway of genuine partnerships as far as homework is concerned: Brown (1993) observes thatthe necessary dialogue is problematic, while many, including Timperley et al (1992),Berresford & Hardie (1996) and MacBeath (2000) note that teachers may be unwilling toinvolve parents in developing homework policies and do not believe in their capacity toreally help with homework. Parental roles are frequently limited to support only, thusensuring the teacher's retention of educational power (McNaughton, 1995) while parents' particular skills go unacknowledged (MacBeath, 2000). Some parents experiencedifficulties from the point of view that they feel unable to deal with the academic demandsof homework (MacBeath & Turner, 1990) and, equally, demands on their time (Hoover-Dempsey et al, 1995), especially if they are single parents (Reay, 1998) and mothers(Maclachlan, 1996). Working class parents find that school practices exclude them(Crozier, 1997; Reay, 1998), as do parents from minority ethnic groups (Bastiani, 1997).As this overview shows, while there is considerable research on the difficulties associated with parental involvement in schooling and the potential for its positive development within programmes such as IMPACT (see, for example Merttens & Newland, 1996) and SHARE(for example, Capper, 2000), the emphasis of such work tends to be on the need for goodcommunication, the genuine recognition and use of parents' skills - particularly in multiculturalsettings - and an avoidance of the ‘colonisation’ of home by school observed by Edwards &Warin (1999). Although a number of studies (for example, MacBeath et al, 1986; Coleman,1998) look more closely at the family dynamics of homework support within the context of home-school relationships, work which considers in detail the emotional climate in whichdoing homework occurs is less easy to find despite Epstein’s (1990:122) call for the integrationof ‘the sociologies of education and the family to understand schools and families asinstitutions and to understand the roles and relationships of the individuals that shareresponsibility for children’. Still less evident is an integration of the sociology of childhoodand a recognition of the part played by children themselves in home-school relations, asEdwards & Alldred (2000) observe. McNamara et al’s (2000) account of the ways in whichteachers, parents, schools and  pupils mobilise and demobilise in an interactive matrix of home-school relations is rare. The result may be that we are overlooking issues which challenge thesecond policy assumption of unproblematic parent-child relationships concerning homework and which may be important mediators in the impact of homework on pupils' educationalattainments.Although the current climate of school accountability has apparently led some parents tofeel that it is the school's job to raise achievement rather than their own (Elliot et al, 2001),research indicates that many parents believe that partnership with schools in terms of homework support is an important factor in achievement (Levin et al, 1997) and in wider applications such as the development of good study habits, general knowledge and broadening of interests (MacBeath & Turner, 1990). Parents in the same study identified arange of perceived general family-based benefits of homework including the promotion of family communication, increased family interaction and keeping parents in touch. Manyresearchers (for example, MacBeath, 2000) have observed that home learning can be moreeffective and richer than school learning. However, parental involvement is not necessarilyadvantageous: a number of families experience considerable conflict over homework  3  (Goodnow & Collins, 1990; Hoover-Dempsey et al, 1995; Levin et al, 1997; Cowan et al,1998). Both Goodnow & Collins (1990) and Hoover-Dempsey et al (1995) report that parents' theories about their children's abilities play a part in their handling of homework,often with detrimental results - parents are quoted by Hoover-Dempsey et al for instance ashaving strong negative emotions which are likely to actively disable, rather than support,their children as learners. Similarly, Cowan et al (1998) note that parents construct views of their children with reference to their own aptitudes and interests and the perceived qualitiesof individual children; harmonious relationships enable beneficial homework support, buthomework can equally heighten tensions already present in a parent-child relationship. AsDunn & Plomin (1990) and Dunn (1993) observe, parenting style is dependent on thehistory of individual parent-child relationships, and differences between siblings suggestthat effective homework support is not just a question of 'effective parenting'; homework help takes place within the context of the parent-child relationship and its precise formdepends on parental theories about individual children's characteristics, development andeducational needs. The force of emotional investment identified in such research is echoedin Levin et al’s (1997) study of mothers’ interactions with their children which found thatthe act of helping had emotional benefits for mothers in the sense of personal reward, butalso had emotional costs and was a cause of tension, especially when their children wereacademically weak.Interactions between parents and their children concerning the detailed dynamics of helpingwith homework are clearly complex and under-researched. There is considerable diversityin parents' expectations and experiences of involvement in their children's education and intheir dealings with schools which is not matched or understood by policy assumptions or strategies. In this paper we present an analysis of homework help which seeks to explainfurther the nature of the tensions and sometimes conflicts which exist in many families. The study The data which we report here were gathered in Rochdale, near Manchester, and form partof a 12-year follow up investigation of families who had been selected from the electoralrole to form the ESRC’s Social Change and Economic Life Initiative (SCELI) in the mid-1980s and now had a child aged 11-16. From the 216 households identified in this way, 94were traced and were invited to participate in the phase of the study which is reported here.Seventy families eventually participated in this phase: a sub-sample of fifty-eight of thesefamilies, all of whom were white, were interviewed by the authors and produced the datathat are analysed here. The sample consisted of 56 female parent figures, 53 male parentfigures, 43 daughters and 40 sons. The teenagers were all aged between 11 and 16, with askew towards the younger 11-13 band in the girls and towards the older 14-16 band in the boys. The respondents came from a range of backgrounds: in keeping with national cohortstudies (e.g., Ferri & Smith, 1996) 68% of the teenagers lived with both birth parents whilethe other 32% lived in a variety of other household types (e.g., single parent, adopted or  blended families). In 55% of households, two adults were employed with at least one in fulltime paid work, in 22% one adult was employed in full time paid work, and in 23% no adultwas employed in full time paid work (in four cases the mother was engaged in part-timework); 34% of households held at least one white collar worker, and 43% were blue collar.In each household the resident parents and teenagers in the target age range wereinterviewed one-to-one by a member of the research team and assured of anonymity andconfidentiality. The interview covered a range of topics including daily householdactivities, the effect of parental employment patterns, parent-teenager joint activities,closeness and change in family relationships, the experience of fathering and the meaning of family, and the teenager’s future in work and parenthood. Following methods developed byfamily researchers such as Noller & Callan (1990, 1991), and building on the classic 4  observation of ‘divergent realities’(Larson & Richards 1994) in the experience of adolescents and their parents, we used the opportunity of interviewing both parents andteenagers to gain their perspectives on the same events and experiences. All the interviewswere transcribed in full and names were changed to maintain anonymity. Using a groundedapproach the interviews were explored on the NUD*IST (QSR, 1997) system to developthemes concerning descriptions of the family over time, ‘closeness’ in relationships, parenting and changing relationships, and patterns of overt and covert parental discipline(see Seale, 2000, for an analysis of techniques similar to those employed here).It was within these contexts that respondents repeatedly raised the topic of homework helpas a highly salient indicator of parenting styles and as a significant site of parent-childrelationships. In the following sections, we identify dominant themes in accounts of homework help, and offer an analysis which focuses on conflicts and tensions arising from parents’ emotional investments in helping with homework and their perceptions of  parenting, and tensions between parents and schools in terms of school demands and parents’ perceptions of their ability to help with school work. We first present an analysisof helping with homework which focuses on basic patterns and themes in parenting roles, parent-school relations, and parent-child relationships. Secondly, we contextualise thesedata within the wider frame of reference of respondents’ general beliefs about gender and parenting; we suggest interdependent themes of reparation and identification as constituentsof parental investment in homework support and subsequent tensions between parents andteenagers. Finally, we consider the policy implications of our analysis in terms of parentaldisenfranchisement in the school homework agenda and tensions between parentalinvestment and perceptions of good parenting. School and family: an analysis of parental roles in homework help In the srcinal study we did not set out to ask about the topic of homework   per se . The factthat homework was spontaneously and frequently mentioned as a major factor in familyrelationships by the majority of respondents when they described their typical daily routinesaccords it particular significance which is borne out by our analysis. For parents in particular it was the focus of some strong feelings expressed when they were asked aboutactivities they enjoyed or disliked doing with their children. While their level of concernwith the topic could be explained simply in terms of their perception that helping withhomework is a socially desirable part of parenting, closer inspection of the data suggeststhat parents were driven by a number of internal and external pressures and concerns. Their accounts of how they helped drew on descriptions of parenting styles, on their relationshipswith schools, and on their relationships with their teenage children. While our initial presentation of the data is in terms of these three broad categories, we should emphasise thatthe nature of homework help is an amalgam of different values, concerns and beliefs. Theaccounts of homework helping styles given by mothers, fathers and teenagers weregenerally consistent within each family in terms of who helped and with what subject and inwhat way, but such accounts could differ in terms of what individual family members feltabout the type of help offered. We consider these complexities further in the followingsections.The most basic account of homework help can be framed in terms of parenting styles.Parents described interactions over homework in terms of beliefs about appropriate supportwhich ranged from non-interventionist to more controlling strategies. Five distinctivegroups covering this range are described and illustrated in Table 1 with an indication of their frequencies. Table I: Parenting styles in homework help (N= 58 families) (continued overleaf)Style description and familytyp   esExample quotations 5
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