Parents Helping with Homework: The Diorama Dilemma

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How do you feel about parents helping with homework? We’re into our second year of school, and I’ve got to say it generally sucks. Considering I am someone with experience in setting and marking homework, I’m surprised what a torment it has become. I really had no idea how much parental involvement was…  involved. This has thrown up many questions: 

  • What is the purpose of homework?
  • Does parents helping with homework contribute to positive parenting?
  • Does parents helping with homework support successful teaching?
  • How much help are other kids are getting at home?
  • Is parents helping with homework even fair?

Whatever your thoughts, there is no doubt that to do it properly you need some serious mom skills.

parents helping with homework title

The tale of a diorama:

Elsie is on Winter Break,  and I was thrilled to receive an email last week that read “no new homework going home this week”. Brilliant, I thought, Winter Break can actually be a break. But them I remembered the hedgehog diorama project… yes that’s actually a thing.

If you don’t know what a diorama is (I had to google it), it’s a model scene of something, usually housed in a box. A quick browse of google brought to my attention that there are two types of diorama. The ones your kid makes, and the ones parents helping with homework ‘contribute’ to. And dioramas aren’t just for kids you know, it gets quite serious. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London featured an exhibition of them back in 2014. They were all lovingly built by local designers, actual grown-up ones. Here’s my favorite – check out more at ELLE Decor:

“I Always Dreamed of an Underwater Aquarium Bathroom” by Katy Christianson

Is this homework for me or her?

My daughter’s six, and is a pretty talented First-Grader. But she has the attention span of one of the paper fish featured in the above diorama, so there’s going to need to be some parental input to get beyond an up-cycled Pampers box decorated with a Sharpied hedgehog.

She’s a six year old with a Sharpie and she’s not afraid to use it.

A couple of days ago I’m staring at the empty box, thinking “how involved do I get here?” A few considerations came to mind:

  • Do I want my daughter to have the coolest diorama that ever lived to show off to her friends?
  • Should I take this an an opportunity to get stuck into a one on one activity with my daughter over the holiday?
  • Do I want teachers and parents to be impressed with our mother daughter team work?
  • Am I secretly excited about making cardboard models, years after graduating from Architecture school? Yes… making models was the best bit.
  • Should I be concerned that most of my reasons for wanting to help are shamefully selfish, morally questionable, and have very little to do with my daughter’s education?

I decide to put my her creation on hold and really think about the purpose of this exercise. 

What the experts say about the purpose of homework:

According to Data Works Educational Research homework should aim to prepare for, practice, extend or apply classwork. They go on to say:

“Homework can help establish communication between parents and children; it can be used as a form of discipline; and it can inform parents about school topics and activities.”

Sounds great, doesn’t it? I stay informed of what Elsie’s learning about, while improving our relationship and bringing general structure to home life. Unfortunately, if you’ve read ‘Organizational Skills: A Tale of Two Ninjas‘ you’ll know that I am currently failing at the latter, and if we had nothing else going on in our lives, homework would be just great. In reality, outside of school Elsie has dance class, cooking club and swim club. We like to have the occasional play date, visit the library, and walk the dog in the park. We often do chores after school like visiting the grocery store, shopping for endless birthday party presents, and the weekly Target run. Elsie is learning the piano and the recorder, both of which require practice. She also needs to eat and wash but I hope that’s not too much to ask.

The truth is, although homework may be useful for supporting school work and enhancing parenting relationships, children do not have time to do it properly without side effects.

“Assigning excessive amounts of homework may result in unneeded stress and pressure on the child, which affects the student’s emotions, behaviors, thinking ability, and physical health.” (

What’s more, I’m dealing with a major case of disinterest in school work, and homework is not helping:

“It can lead to boredom if the student has already mastered the skills, and it can lead to loss of interest in school due to burnout.” (

I would really rather avoid burnout, especially before we hit the Second Grade.

What experts say about parents helping with homework:

Harvard Family Research Project published a review of current research on ‘Parental Involvement in Homework‘ and reading between a lot of waffle I can summarize the advantages of parents helping with homework as:

  • Helping to structure time, space, and materials;
  • Supporting challenges in ability, effort and motivation;
  • Rewarding effort, completion, correctness;
  • Encouraging kids to break tasks into discrete, manageable parts;
  • Modelling appropriate learning processes and problem solving strategies;
  • Checking for understanding;
  • Encouraging kids to self-monitor and self-motivate;

All positive contributions parents can make to a child’s learning. Where the Family Research Project goes all kinds of wrong is when they include statements like:

‘Structure homework within the flow of family life; ensure parental “availability on demand”’

Oh come on Harvard… ‘availability on demand’? Do you have any children? If so, I’m presuming you only have one. Elsie has two younger brothers, are they expected to have ‘availability on demand’ too? You’ve got to be joking.

My thoughts on helping with homework

If you haven’t seen the movie ‘Bad Mums’, before everything goes horribly wrong, she is living the perfected life of the ‘super mom’. In amongst soccer practice, PTA meetings, her job and making dinner, she’s also ‘helping’ with homework. Here’s a picture of her son’s history project, a huge paper mache bust of Richard Nixon:

bad moms movie nixon head

As you can see, it’s expected that parents helping with homework not only have the time to do so, but also graduated from Art school… no pressure. I do think it’s a little unfair on kids with busier parents, I can see it getting competitive and no-one wants to be the kid with the crappy diorama. At the same time, as much we try to avoid it, school is a competitive environment and always will be.

Despite my general loathing for State standardized homework (the crappy timed Math worksheets in particular grind my gears), I do see the purpose of project work. It’s also particularly suited to parents helping with homework. It helps us organize appropriate timings, discuss, inspire, demonstrate and check for understanding in the process. 

Back to the hedgehog diorama…

Elsie’s been super pumped about it, research has been integrated into our library visits and we plan to find some extra materials while out on a dog walk (twigs, leaves etc).  I can honestly say, the project homework has encouraged motivation for school work and created opportunities for positive parenting. So… how much did I help?

After considering the positive and negative impact of parents helping with homework, I came up with a strategy:

  • Discuss the project and share ideas;
  • Encourage making an ‘ideas board’. ie draw the diorama and what she wants it to look like;
  • Create the bits she won’t be able to, while explaining what I’m doing at all times;
  • Support her in making the bits that she can;
  • Reward her efforts and correct where appropriate;

So, that’s what we did. And I know you are just desperate to see the hedgehog diorama itself…



What can I say… I was born for this stuff.

How much do you help your kids with their homework?



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About the author

Katherine is an electrochemist, hiking enthusiast, and family lifestyle blogger. As a mom of three, including twins, she enjoys DIY, travel, and eating good food. British born, Katherine moved to the US in 2014, and now called Las Vegas home.

6 thoughts on “Parents Helping with Homework: The Diorama Dilemma”

  1. Homework projects like these can be fun , when you have time. The basic assumption is that parents are available all through after school hours – which in most cases is not true. We love that our school here gathers the supplies for most projects and have the kids do it at school , in small groups. Gets rid of a lot of pressure and unfair competition and comparison .

  2. To be honest, I hate homework. I think that homework should be whatever is left over that doesn’t get done at school. I mean, except for maybe when your kids get older. I can understand why high schoolers and college students would have homework. But, I really loved your thoughts here and I think the project turned out great!

    • Thanks! I’m totally with you, having set it myself, the only useful homework is practice question papers for exams. I.e. Revision for 16-18 yr olds. Six year olds having homework is ridiculous in my opinion!


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