ASK EMORY: Suggestions, Not Directions


Dear Emory,

School is starting up again, and I’m getting the usual messages from my kids’ school telling us parents that we are supposed to be involved with our kids’ education and help them with their homework, etc. Maybe this works for some kids, but it’s not working for us. My son, in particular, doesn’t like it when I try to help him and fights me about it. Even when he is struggling—especially when he is struggling—he seems to hate it when I try to help him.

So now what?

Perplexed on Philadelphia

Dear Perplexed,

The dilemma you are describing is a problem many other families are facing, too. Most parents want to help their child succeed in school. Yet that’s easier said than done when kids like your son push their parents’ help away.

I wonder if your son’s irritability might be due in part to his experiences at school every day? From the moment he the school day begins until final dismissal, he has been told where to sit, what to work on, and how to do his work “right.” Some kids find this kind of routine comforting, and some find it irritating. Perhaps by the time your son gets home, he is just plain tired of being told what to do? Maybe this is why—even when he is struggling—he says to you, “just leave me alone, I want to do this myself”?

Of course, school environments have to be highly organized to teach hundreds of children at the same time, and it makes sense to ask kids to follow directions and obey the rules when they are there. But in the comfort of your own home, you and your children have the freedom to create a less pressured environment that respects your children’s preferences for learning and their choices about how to do their work.

One way to do this is to give your kids choices about when and where they do their homework. After school, after dinner, or even early in the morning before school can work for different children with different energy ebbs and flows.

You can also get together with your children to work out a friendly homework help plan. What kind of help do your children find helpful? What types of ‘help’ are not helpful, or even slow your kids down?

For kids, this often means being able to ask for parent’s help, as well as being able to say “No thanks” to other kinds of ‘help.’ I like it when you wait until I ask a question. I don’t like it when you sit and watch me writing. I like it when you check over my work for mistakes when I’m done. I don’t like it when you interrupt me and tell me I’m doing something wrong.

For parents, this means letting your kids clearly know what kinds of help you are willing to offer and what kinds of ‘help’ you are not willing to give. I’m willing to show you the steps to long division. I’m not willing to do your math problems for you. I’m willing to make suggestions about how to look up information. I’m not willing to do your research for you.

Basically, kids appreciate it when parents offer suggestions instead of giving directions. The difference between a suggestion and a direction may seem small, but the effects are big. A direction says, “you have to…” A suggestion offers, “you can choose to.” A direction says, “Do it my way.” A suggestion proposes, “here is another idea you might find helpful.”

When you offer your son suggestions, “Perplexed,” you will likely find him responding differently. Suggestions, after all, are friendly offers that give kids the sense that their parent’s respect their judgment and their ability to figure out what is useful or not. That is the kind of friendly offer that often wins a friendly—and appreciative!—response.

About the Author

Emory Luce Baldwin
Emory Luce Baldwin is the co-author of "Parenting With Courage and Uncommon Sense." In addition to being a Takoma Park mom for more than 25 years, Emory is also a family therapist in private practice and a parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP). Well over a thousand parents have learned from her how to have healthier, happier, and better functioning families — while enjoying her good humored yet practical approach to the ups and downs of family life. Emory’s family therapy offices are located in Takoma Park and at the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington. You can read more about her at her website: