How to Help Your Child Learn Subjects When You're Not Good at Them

In my house, it’s an unwritten rule that the kids come to me for help with their English homework, while they go to their dad for math assistance. If he’s not around, I might attempt it.

More often than not, however, I end up telling them to wait until he’s home. It has become a joke in my family that I draw blanks when it comes to math.

But what kind of message are we sending during these challenges? Are we teaching our kids that it’s too late for us to learn? What should we do when it comes to helping our kids in subjects we’re just not (ahem) good at?

Some Advice From Other Parents

Many parents suggest trying kids' homework first. This will give you a sense of the timelines they’ll need, as well as any potential stumbling blocks.

If sections are tricky for both parent and child, online resources can be helpful. Two that come highly recommended are Khan Academy and Illuminations by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), which offers a wide variety of current and research-based practice activities and resources.

One mother I spoke to, Lila McNulty, says that she asks her kids to read the instructions out loud. “Nine times out of ten,” she says, “they realize how to do the problem before I have to say a word.”

Another mother, Erika Klimecky, employs a similar strategy. She’s learned that with the new math methods, she just can’t offer her own solutions anymore. Instead, during tutoring sessions, she asks her child to reason through each step the way he probably did earlier in class. She notes, “It’s more useful than trying to teach [him] ‘my way,’ which ends up being a whole new method for [him] to learn.” In English, the same treatment applies: “Walk through the assignment at home, and usually the next steps reveal themselves.”

It might even be an advantage not to be able to help. “I think it’s more important to model how to learn rather than to give the answer,” says Casey Henry, a parent I interviewed. “I actually prefer the scenario when I don’t know what they’re learning. Sometimes, kids feel empowered when they think they know more than their parents, especially when their parents are excited about being taught. It also forces me to think about how I would figure it out, and then encourage them to identify similar strategies.”

Henry views the strategies — not the solutions — as key life skills, especially when coupled with a positive attitude.

“Homework can be considered a series of fun puzzles to solve or stories to understand, rather than a miserable, pointless chore,” she says. “And if neither of us can identify the right strategies? Then I encourage [her] to do every bit of the homework [she] can and take the confusing part back to the teacher, raise [her] hands, and articulate where [she] got stuck — because chances are other kids got stuck there, too!” This life skill — called intellectual humility — can take your child far in her academic career.

The best resource is the real expert in this equation — your child’s teacher, says Terry Weeks, a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Middle Tennessee State University and 1988 National Teacher of the Year. He says to tell the teacher if you’re weak in a particular subject so the teacher can offer appropriate advice.

“Teachers are used to meeting learners where they are,” Weeks says, “and the teacher should be able to tailor the suggestions to the level at which the parent can be comfortable.” Broderick concurs: “Even with a Ph.D. in Education, I often ask for clarification on assignments from my children’s teachers.”

Additionally, some schools offer workshops specifically for parents. If all else fails, hire a tutor.

And don’t let this get you down. “Teachers will tell you that there are no ‘dumb students’ and that every student can learn,” says Broderick, “The same is true of parents, of course!”

In my case, I’m the one who taught my son how to do math the traditional way. Perhaps there’s hope for me after all!

If you are looking for more resources and tools to help your child with an assignment, visit Noodle’s Homework Help page.