When she was in elementary school, Jennifer Crutchfield could never quite unravel the mysteries of the associative and distributive properties of multiplication.
“I remember a nun in third or fourth grade being mad at me because I couldn’t figure it out,” she laughs.
But the mathematical enigmas have come back to haunt her time and again when her sons Matt, George and Will encountered them in their own studies.
Now 47 years old and the director of public relations at local PBS affiliate WTCI-TV, Crutchfield says she’s undaunted by many topics from her school days — mathematical and otherwise — but solving equations using those properties is as confounding today as it was 40 years ago.
“Fifth-grade math I have not done well in it four times now,” she says. “I felt that nun on my shoulder every single time that my kids were learning [those topics]. I’m still not sure that I can explain it well without looking it up. It’s very humbling to admit that.”
Crutchfield is not alone in feeling out of her academic element when it comes to her children’s homework. Studies have found that most parents admit to having difficulty helping their kids with take-home assignments.
According to a January 2015 poll of 2,000 adults done for U.K. insurer Aviva by market researcher OnePoll, 60 percent of parents admit to having difficulty helping with their child’s schoolwork either “always,” “often” or “sometimes.”
Like Crutchfield, 39 percent of respondents to the poll say math causes them the most headaches, and 29 percent say they feel pressured to help when their children ask for assistance. Nearly half of parents (49 percent) admit to having used Google on the sly to dredge up an answer when their own knowledge fell short.
“The study shows that many parents suffer a lack of confidence in helping with homework, and no doubt the list of topics will serve up memories of their classroom days they may not be fond of,” writes Aviva Marketing Director Heather Smith in a news release. “‘However, it’s important that we do everything possible to equip our children in key areas like numeracy from an early age and develop their confidence in these areas.”
More than half of the respondents (51 percent) to the poll say they wish they’d worked harder when they were in school.
Chattanoogan Roz Allen, a 58-year-old retiree and self-styled jack-of-all-trades, says she knows that feeling all too well.
As a student, Allen says she mostly just “floated through school being mediocre,” doing just enough homework to keep her parents and teachers off her back. Her daughters Crystal, 27, and Doniece, 22, however, were honors students and, by the time they reached middle school, she found herself struggling to assist with their assignments.
“I was stumped,” Allen says. “I was like, ‘I don’t know how to help you past this point.'”
According to the Aviva study, 43 percent of parents say they’ve felt either inadequate or that their children doubted their intelligence when they were unable to help out with homework. For parents who experienced their own academic struggles as students, being asked to help with assignments can often dredge up uncomfortable memories and associations, Allen says.
“They didn’t really like school when they were there, and now they have kids coming to them with homework, and they don’t want anything to do with it,” she says. “It’s taking them back to how they didn’t do well in school. It’s easier to let your kids slide by.”
Even if parents did well in school, simply admitting to not knowing an answer can seem like it threatens to undermine their parental authority. Crutchfield says that’s why she would do just about anything to avoid acknowledging her inability to assist with her sons’ homework, especially once they entered adolescence.
“You’re trying to maintain a power dynamic that is life with a teenager,” she says. “I’m sure not going to admit that there’s a possibility that they’re smarter about something than me.
“That might cut into my edge,” she adds with a laugh.
Struggling to help with homework might be a source of embarrassment for some parents, but teachers say it’s no reason to be red-faced.
“Even if it’s a topic that they studied in school, chances are, unless they use that knowledge in their current job, they don’t remember it. That’s very typical,” says Jill Pieritz, head of the computer science department at Girls Preparatory School. “I know when a student comes to me and asks for help with a math problem, I can’t help because I haven’t done it in 20 years.”
But parents having difficulty retaining information they learned as students doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary to continue teaching those topics, Pieritz adds.
“[As a student], you’re learning how to take information and process it and analyze it and apply it to topics you’re working on,” she says. “There are topics we study in order to teach students how to learn and practice this ability. [And] in order to be a well-rounded person, we need broad exposure to different topics.”
Besides, Pieritz says, inability to answer a question shouldn’t mark the end of a parent’s involvement in their child’s studies. Instead, parents can take a supportive role by making sure their children have reached out to their teacher for advice, ensuring they understand their assignments and helping them review and organize their notes.
“Those are some of the basics you can cover without knowing subject-specific material,” Pieritz says. “One of the things I tell students to do all the time is ‘Don’t be afraid to Google it.’ There are so many resources online these days for any subject.”
Neither Allen nor Crutchfield allowed themselves to be sidelined after their children came to them with questions they couldn’t answer.
When her daughters had trouble, Allen found other ways to assist, whether it was reaching out to her daughters’ teachers, researching their school’s tutoring options or buying educational computer programs to provide the answers she couldn’t.
“It’s all about engagement,” she says. “The teachers have always been available. I never had a bad experience with a teacher who I went to if I thought my child was struggling. They always pointed me in the right direction.”
Crutchfield says she long since began consulting trusted online resources such as PBS’s LearningMedia databases for homework help. That way, she says, she was able to give herself a much-needed review on a problem subject, which let her remain helpful and involved in her sons’ education.
“If you do it right, that’s the fun thing about parenting,” she says. “You can re-energize your love of learning by refreshing those things you’re helping your kids achieve success at. Hiding in the closet seldom works.”
Here are a handful of the legions of online resources for parents who need a bit of assistance re-familiarizing themselves with their child’s homework subjects:
Discovery Education (discoveryeducation.com/parents) offers free family resources such as by-subject homework help as well as access to WebMath, which offers guided, step-by-step instruction to properly solve math problems.
Brainfuse (brainfuse.com) provides homework assistance and one-to-one tutoring for students throughout their academic careers, from kindergarten through high school. Brainfuse is a subscription service, but members of the Chattanooga Public Library can access it for free through
chattlibrary.org/resources-homework. PBS LearningMedia (pbslearningmedia.org) compiles more than 100,000 digital learning resources for elementary, middle and high school and university students. Materials offered include lesson plans, digital resources and videos, interactive lessons and classroom handouts. Registration is free.
According to a 2015 poll of 2,000 adults by market researcher OnePoll on behalf of U.K. insurer Aviva, here are the Top 10 homework subjects that trip parents up the most:
› Pythagorean theorem
› Roman history
› Long division
› The American Civil War
› The Periodic Table
› The formation of atoms
Contact Casey Phillips at [email protected] or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.