The school year started off well for my fourth grade son and homework seemed to be moving along smoothly. However, by mid-January I started to see a progression of hemming and hawing, procrastination and delay tactics, a prickly attitude, distractions, and then off-track behavior. Furthermore, he didn’t want me to sit at the table with him any more as he did his homework.
It took me a while to notice I was getting more and more tense around the issue of homework. This challenge seemed to come out of nowhere though it had been building for quite some time. In fact, the struggles around homework were starting to take more time than the homework itself. Of course, I pointed this out to my son, thinking like a logical adult. That didn’t help the situation at all. The tensions were mounting.
The only thing I knew to do was to get listening time. I told my Listening Partner all my worries and fears. When my son got grumpy around homework, I felt like my back was up against the wall. Good study habits were always important to me and I wanted my son to have that same attitude. I got worried when it seemed like he was giving up so easily, he couldn’t focus, or that he was possibly “lazy” as he did the bare minimum to get by. If he freaked out about a little homework assignment, what would happen when he was out in the real world with a real boss who was demanding things that may seem impossible? Will he be ‘tough enough’ to make it in this world? I also didn’t like that homework was taking up so much family time. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if it was just getting done, but when you added all the complaining, whining and distractions around it, our family time was dwindling to nothing. I was getting very tired of this scenario and it was getting worse.
I told all of this to my listening partner. I was able to get frustrated and shake and feel the heat of being alone in this “battle” I was in as my listening partner heard and encouraged me, knowing I would figure it out. I remembered how easy school was for me, but I also had a few stressful homework moments when I was a teenager. I was very serious about my homework as a teen. My listening partner helped remind me that I was a good parent and I had good thinking, and that I was loving my son well. I could start to see things a little more clearly as I got several sessions of listening time.
I could see that some of the learning tasks in front of him could be challenging and possibly even overwhelming while other tasks could seem tedious. His teachers were working hard to push him to higher heights, but it was inevitable that frustration was going to occasionally set in. Frustration could cause his mind to tense up.
His tensed up mind would find a small thing to get stuck on. With my son, he would get stuck on things like his “stupid spelling words,” and then his pencil wouldn’t work, and then his eraser would tear the “stupid paper.” Because I was getting good listening time around homework, I was able to see that his frustration was really becoming a block to his learning and progressing more fluidly through his homework.
I also knew that a tantrum, with crying, sweating and lots of movement would actually help him move through his frustration around homework. If I could give my son an outlet for his frustration, all the energy that went to managing that frustration could be freed up for “learning power.” This would allow him to learn more quickly and even take “learning risks.” It would free his mind of the negative feelings that could build up. It would build confidence for a learner.
So what did I do? I set up a good cry. Here is what happened. My son was supposed to do some spelling homework. The first step was to trace the letters with his finger and then write the word twice. He didn’t do the tracing. From the kitchen as I was doing the dinner dishes, I reminded him of the proper instructions. He grumbled back at me.
Keep to the Limit
It was clear he was frustrated. I could tell he was putting the least amount of effort into his homework. If I let things continue, this wasn’t going to go well. But I had anticipated this and I knew I was in a good place, so I went to him warmly, put a gentle hand on his arm, sat down next to him, and said very warmly, “Sweetheart, the letters need to be traced.”
Immediately, he jumped up from his chair and started yelling about how stupid it was to trace the letters. His teacher was stupid and he wasn’t going to do it. He ran into the living room. His arms flailed. I followed him, moving slowly, giving him all of my attention and eye contact, and sat on the edge of the couch. I listened as he yelled some more about how stupid it all was. I nodded my head a few times, and said, “I see.” He ranted for about 10 minutes. I said, “Yes, you need to trace with your finger.” He fell on the ground crying. I moved from the couch next to him and put my hand on his back. I just listened.
I didn’t try to fix anything for him. The issue was not him thinking things were stupid. The real issue was the tension that that didn’t allow thoughts to flow freely and learning to take place. I knew I didn’t need to counter his complaints or how everything was stupid. I knew listening to him offload his frustration would help him tremendously.
For the next 10 minutes he would oscillate from jumping up and moving around to falling on the ground in a crying heap. I moved with him, but slowly and deliberately. Staying as close as he would let me, and letting his words of frustration fall out of his mouth. I didn’t give him a lecture about how amazing his teacher is or how important his homework is. I just listened. I let him focus on his homework trigger (the finger tracing) and I focused on listening and connecting with him.
Then suddenly he stopped crying. He wanted a break from his homework that night and to make it up the next night. I agreed to this. I could see he was really exhausted. I wanted to give him an opportunity to step up. I wanted to see what he would do.
The next day, when I helped him get set up with his ‘double’ homework, there was no discussion, no exchange of what needed to happen next, no issues to review, no talk about anything being “stupid.” He just started tracing the words with his finger. Word by word. Just like his teacher instructed him to do. In fact, it’s the end of the school year and we have not had a single homework struggle since this tantrum. Moreover, the quality of his homework improved throughout the rest of the year with much more focus, care, attention to detail and enthusiasm from him.
Kristen is a former Certified Parenting by Connection Instructor in Denver, Colorado.
From the Hand in Hand Toolbox
There's more on homework help in The Big Reason They Won't Do Homework
If school is difficult try Five ways To Banish Back to School Blues
Find all your parenting struggles addressed in the book Listen: Five Ways To Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges. Read a chapter here.