The line between helping a child learn and overdoing can be hard to find. One father I spoke with is anxious about his daughter starting middle school. Throughout the elementary grades, he and his wife worked closely with her on about 25 percent of her assignments, both in and outside of school. ``Now,'' he says, ``we feel she needs to do things more on her own.'' But will she be able to cope with more subjects? Was it a mistake, he wonders, to have been so involved?
Figuring out what role to play in a child's education can be perplexing. Some parents overprogram their children with lessons, activities, and remedial help. Without a free afternoon, many educators insist, children miss the fun of being young.
Still others push for good grades. One mother told me her pressuring caused behavior problems in her 10-year-old. A therapist helped her realize that ``grades were not the most important things - if he learned, that was important.''
Some parents shrug off their responsibility, leaving it to the school. But many students face frustration year after year, said noted educator Benjamin S. Bloom in a telephone interview. In second and third grades, one of three children is a low achiever, and their academic future looks gloomy. At least eight out of 10 of these students will still rank in the bottom third of their class as 10th- or 11th-graders.
The cause? Primarily the way classrooms compare students, Dr. Bloom says, the way they're ranked from best to worst.
No one can lay out a blueprint guaranteeing ways to make your children good students. Experts agree, however, that without your involvement their chances are slim. The five following recommendations are adaptable to all ages and generally considered indispensable:
1.Encourage your children to believe in themselves. Spend more time telling children what they do right rather than wrong, urges Dorothy Rich, president of Home and School Institute. Self-esteem is basic for successful learning.
The students I spoke with expressed various anxieties about starting school: from third-grade work being too hard to forgetting a locker combination and being tardy. High school seniors worried about keeping up their grades for college.
A teacher recalls an eight-year-old nonreader who was fascinated by insects. When his collection was chosen as centerpiece for the science table, he became a star. New feelings of ``I can do it'' empowered him to tackle and master reading skills.
Learning from one's mistakes can also boost self-confidence. Thomas Watson Jr., former IBM chief executive officer, is said to have told his executives, ``The main difference between me and the rest of you is that I make more mistakes. People who take risks accomplish more.''
Children who are afraid to make mistakes become parrots - memorizing or repeating others. My high school teacher put it this way: Worrying about what others think can paralyze you. Achievers figure out what went wrong, and use that to succeed.
2.Obtain help when your child needs it. If Mary cannot write a paragraph, every paper is destined to be poor. Pinpoint their needs, and take steps early. Consider tutoring. In one study, average students who were tutored learned more than 98 percent of their peers who attended regular classes. The tutor need not be a parent or an expensive professional. Research shows that students work effectively with each other. Check with the teacher about using classmates or older peers.
3.Encourage your children to think. Government reading and math tests of the 1970s and '80s show a drop in the ability of both junior and senior high students to use logic and to solve problems - to think.
Everyday problems offer effective exercises: What are the advantages of buying a house over renting? Share the way you reason through problems, like whether to switch jobs. News stories and television programs can provide limitless opportunities to stimulate thinking. Try questions such as: Could that problem have been solved differently? How? If someone is attractive, does that mean he or she is a good person? Can we believe advertisers who insist that their brand of aspirin or orange juice is the best? Why not?
4.Back up the basics. Proficiency in most fields, from typewriting and swimming to reading, writing, and math, requires overlearning certain fundamentals. The school day lacks enough hours.
To become skillful readers, studies show that children must read three to four hours a week to themselves. Encourage their interests, not necessarily what you think is ``good'' reading.
Relate the basics to everyday needs: from writing relatives to keeping diaries and taking messages. Math skills become second nature when used to check the tab at restaurants, calculate gas mileage, or figure your budget or portions in cooking.
5.Offer the essential background and motivation. One parent noticed her five-year-old was fascinated with the stars. Reading with him about the constellations led to Greek and Norse mythology. By age 10, his interest fanned out to a love of operas by Richard Wagner based on those myths.
The usual advice - expose your children to everything through trips and community visits - is inadequate. Only by reading, writing, and talking about those experiences can you stretch their knowledge and interest.
Don't forget to introduce your hobbies and pleasures. In his study of how 120 outstanding adults had developed their talents, Bloom found that parents' love of music, sports, or art sometimes triggered the careers of future world-class concert pianists, sculptors, tennis players, and swimmers.
For other materials, showing how to use everyday events to help your children learn, contact the nonprofit Home and School Institute, Special Projects Office, 1201 16th St., N.W., Washington, DC 20038.