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The biggest influence on a child's attitude about homework is spelled M-O-M and D-A-D.

So says Harris Cooper, Ph.D., author of "The Battle Over Homework," and a professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where a new study confirms that parental input has the most influence over how much of an assignment is done -- and also how well it is done.

"The family must back up a child's homework efforts in specific ways, or it will be extremely difficult for him to succeed, no matter how smart he is," Cooper says.

Want to do that, but unsure how?

Try a few ground rules:

1. Be a time cop. Up to the third-grade level, typical homework should be one or two sheets per night, or last about 20 minutes. "An hour, an hour and a half is too much," says Michael Sheldon, principal of the Fletcher Elementary school in Tonawanda. It could signal either that your child is struggling, or the teacher is overwhelming still very young children.

2. Help, but don't hover. Look over a completed paper? Sure. Point out specific errors and redo them yourself? No. You're done with school -- your child is not. "This is the hardest part," admits Nancy Hyzy, head of the Parent-Teacher-Student Association at Amherst's Casey Middle School. "It's hard to let them fail or fall down, but sometimes it's necessary."

3. Do what the teacher asks. Even if an assignment seems trite, don't belittle it. It fosters disrespect in the child, and ignores what may be a small but crucial task. "I often assign 'just' vocabulary," says Noreen Nirschel, a science teacher at Christ the King School in Snyder. "I'm not one to give a tremendous amount of work, but I do insist that those words be learned. Studying vocabulary is extremely important."

4. Remember: It's the '90s, not the (fill in your coming-of-age decade here). Maybe rote learning worked for you, but studies show that it most likely didn't. Without practical meaning to back up facts, information falls out of kids' brains like water through a sieve. So be game when unorthodox stuff walks through the door. "Once you allow a little latitude and creativity, subjects become much more interesting to students," says Amherst High School history teacher Robert LeFauve. "And asking for creativity in homework and projects makes it much harder to cheat."

5. Be prepared. Just as you try to keep milk, bread and coffee in the house, so should your kid's desk -- or some drawer in the home -- be stocked with supplies like poster board, colored paper, string, markers, etc.

6. Don't be the jerk parent. Constant snippy notes from home commenting on the volume and quality of homework doesn't necessarily make you appear ultra-involved -- it can make you appear ultra-crabby and frankly somewhat intimidated by what the child brings home. "Support us, don't make your child choose between your authority and ours. It's like making them choose between two parents," says one high school teacher. "If you have a problem, talk it out in private with the teacher. Don't be a rebel about it. That was cute when you were 17. Not now."

-- Lauri Githens

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