Here’s something I’ve seen a lot lately:
- The parent checks their child’s online grades and is unhappy with what they see.
- There’s a bunch of missing work, so the parent makes a list of all the missing work on a piece of paper.
- They present this to-do list to the student saying, “Here are all the homework assignments you need to complete.”
- Then, to the parent’s dismay, the child does not do the tasks on the list.
What’s going on here?
Why You Shouldn’t Make a To-Do List for Your Child
The main problem is about ownership. If the parent makes the to-do list, they’re taking ownership of the child’s work. Thus, the student doesn’t have to. The parent is doing the hunting, sorting, recording, thinking, and caring, so the child doesn’t have to. The result? Passivity and inaction.
Another response, very common with teenagers, is active resistance. People don’t like to be told what to do, and this tendency is particularly pronounced in teenagers. So, when you present your 15-year-old with a list of things to do, their response might be to deliberately ignore that list. They probably intended to do some of that work, but now they won’t because you’re nagging them to do it.
This is just another classic example of how micromanaging backfires.
What Should Parents Do?
The challenge is that many students genuinely need executive function support. They lack the knowledge, skills, and experience to handle it all on their own. So the answer isn’t to step back and do nothing.
There’s a middle ground between micromanaging and doing nothing called “scaffolding.” This means providing structure, support, and guidance without putting yourself in the driver’s seat.
With regard to to-do lists, parents can try the following:
- Model list-making in your own life.
- Provide the tools of list-making: paper, pens/pencils, sticky notes, sticky sheets, planners, calendars, etc.
- Suggest ways to make their to-do list more organized or effective, and suggest a maintenance schedule, but don’t get upset if they ignore all of your suggestions.
- Go through the list-making process together, with the student doing all of the searching and writing. You’re just playing the role of coach – helping them stay on task and decide what should be written down.
Whose Homework is It?
You can’t force your child to write a to-do list and expect buy-in. If you mandate that a list be written and written in a particular way, your child will see it as just another thing they have to do to avoid getting in trouble. They won’t put things on the list because they intend to do them. They’ll write things down just to keep you from getting upset.
A student’s to-do list should be theirs and theirs alone. If parents write the list for them or micromanage the list, then the student doesn’t see it as meaningful or valuable. If the parent is in charge of the to-do list, then it’s as though the homework belongs to the parent.
And just as students need to be the owners of their grades, they need to be the owners of their homework – responsible for tracking it, doing it, and turning it in. If you take on that responsibility, your child will never learn to become responsible for themselves.
More Parenting Ideas
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Chris Loper has been working as a tutor and academic coach since 2014, racking up over 10,000 hours of experience supporting students.
Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris’s most recent endeavor combines his academic and habit-formation expertise to help students thrive in college. Visit SmartCollegeHabits.com to learn more.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.