Is your child studying topics that appear to be more complex than those you remember studying? Do you feel at a loss to help your child navigate math problems or book reports? You’re not alone.

Many parents feel some level of intimidation when they hear the question, “Will you help me with my homework?” Parents fear embarrassment if they are unfamiliar with the kind of work their child is doing. They worry that they may appear vulnerable in front of their child. In reality, the converse is true.

When you say to your child, “I’m not sure how to do this, either. Let’s look for some help,” this shows your child that it’s okay not to know the answers. More important, it shows your child how to find resources on his or her own.

We’ve compiled some key tips to help you overcome your fears, while at the same time furthering a positive bond between you and your child.

  • Work through the problem or assignment with your child, even if you’re not sure how to approach it. Have your child explain what he or she is doing and why. Ask questions to clarify any vague concepts your child may describe. By guiding your child to talk through the problem or assignment, he or she might discover the solution on his or her own.
  • It’s okay to learn material along with your child. Your child will not expect you to have all the answers. Even without answers, there are several ways you can help. Show your child how to find the resources and examples he or she needs, whether in the class materials or online. The broader lesson of learning along with your child is modeling how to be an effective learner.
  • Math, in particular, can be a difficult subject for parents; most of us learned math in a completely different way than our children and may even be “math phobic.” However, you can guide your child to work through a math problem even if you aren’t sure of how to find the solution. Ask your child if drawing a picture or making a diagram might help solve the problem. Perhaps using manipulatives (objects as simple as paper clips, blocks, etc.) might help your child act out the problem or see it in a new way. Math is an abstract concept. Using pictures and other visual aids helps to clarify the context.

Here’s another way to provide context. For example, your child is struggling with the equation 4 x y =24. Ask your child to read the equation aloud as if it were a sentence: “Four times an unknown number ( ) equals 24.”

If your child is still having difficulty with the problem, try adding real-life context with a story. The same math problem can be illustrated in this way: “Suppose you babysit for 4 hours. You earn 24 dollars. How much money did you earn for each hour?”

These simple exercises alone may help your child understand what is being asked. Numbers and symbols alone can appear daunting, but when translated into words they often make more sense. In this way, your child is using another part of the brain to solve a problem. Research shows that one part of the brain is used to solve number problems, while another part of the brain is used to solve a problem in story form.

  • Encourage your child to speak with his or her teacher if some concepts need further explanation. Remind your child that teachers expect and welcome such questions from their students. Children sometimes fear that they will lose favor with a teacher by admitting they are struggling. Reassure your child that teachers admire students who take their learning seriously and ask for help when necessary. (Just as you may fear that your child might judge you if you don’t have all the answers, your child likely has similar worries about his or her teacher.)
  • If you’re like most parents, you do not judge your child solely on his or her academic ability. This is most likely a lesson you’ve already taught your child and it is more likely than not that your child will not judge you either, even if algebra or the composition of a book report has you perplexed.

Remember: The most important part of any homework session is to keep the activity positive. Don’t allow your child to make any negative judgments about his or her abilities. It’s okay to postpone a session for another time if your child becomes frustrated or upset. Better to wait and try again than to have your child associate homework time or learning with feelings of inadequacy.