Sunday, April 02, 2023

Parents should support but not do a child's homework for them

“How much help is OK for a parent to give for a child's project?” a reader we’re calling Flo asked.

After I received Flo’s question, I was reminded of a paper I wrote for an earth science class in my freshman year of high school. My father worked for many years as an agronomist for the Soil Conservation Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As part of his job, he spent time in the field mapping soils.

Occasionally, he let me tag along with him as he drove to remote fields or wooded areas in New Jersey to measure inclines with his pocket clinometer or to use a large auger to extract soil samples. To have a sense of where he was going and where he was once he got there, he used sets of aerial photographs and a portable stereoscope to view the terrain.

I wrote my report for earth science class on mapping soils. My father loaned me some of his manuals and tools, recommended other books, and drove me to the county library to research other sources. I did my research, wrote my paper, and typed it up using the skills I learned in eighth grade typing class, a class I almost failed because I couldn’t type without looking at the keys.

When I finished the report, my father offered to make a Xerox copy of an aerial photograph to use as a cover for the paper. I accepted his offer, stapled the paper together, and turned it in.

My teacher returned the paper with a note suggesting it was clearly not my work, but instead was likely written by my father. Meetings with her, the department head, a guidance counselor and others ensued. Ultimately, it was determined there was no way to prove I hadn’t written the paper. She graded the paper on its merits rather than on her suspicions.

I ran into the teacher about 40 years later. I didn’t recognize her, but she knew my name and told me the experience had in part led her to explore opportunities outside of the classroom. We didn’t discuss whether she had come around to believing I had written the paper or not.

Now, back to Flo’s question. I believe it is totally appropriate for parents to help a child with school work as vigorously and supportively as they can, but to stop short of doing the work for them. If a child asks for explanations, great. If a child asks a parent to read a draft to see if it makes sense, terrific. If a parent offers to make a copy of a title page for a report, have at it.

If a child has put off writing a paper to the last minute and asks a parent to write it for him, the parent shouldn’t. Help is fine. Doing all the work for a child is not.

My father’s dad jokes could be excruciating. (Full disclosure: Mine are no better.) But he was a quiet, humble, and honest man. I am confident that my teacher’s accusation hurt him as much as it hurt me, if not more. He did the right thing by supporting me while I was writing my paper and supporting me when my honesty was challenged since he knew he hadn’t written my paper. Had he offered to do the work for me, it would have been both surprising and wrong.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin


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