Humans are inclined toward fun and conviviality. We love to play. We love our free time — parents no less than the children. But after vacations or time off, parents have to find a way to squeeze their little band of loved ones into the strictures of a school-and work-oriented schedule. In many families, the biggest pinch is felt around homework.
Homework often creates trouble for families
Given the rigors of weekday life, it's easy to see why homework is a recipe for trouble. Combine tired, time-pressured parents with children who've had enough of being told what to do for the day. Add a measure of resentment or frustration (ingredients that aren't usually packaged in small amounts). Some parents feel they need to spice the mixture with threats of punishment or removal of privileges, though this never really makes the final product more palatable. Some children top it with, “I can't!” “I won't!” or “Leave me alone!”
It's a combustible brew.
Homework is touted as a key to your child's future success in the world. In reality, it tends to undermine the sweetness of the parent-child relationship. And it sours kids on school.
There is strong evidence that homework in the elementary school years does not provide an intellectual advantage to children. A University of Michigan study has shown that the single best predictor of higher achievement scores and fewer behavior problems for children ages 3 – 12 is eating family meals together, not studying.
In order to have the motivation and sustained attention for learning, children's spirits need to feed on the laughter, wrestling, chasing, cuddling and family talks that let them know that they belong with us.
Instead of homework, children would do better to have fun, relax and pursue after-school adventures and hobbies.
Their instincts are good. It takes play to keep people bonded and in the mood for learning from one another.
Unfortunately, schools have the tendency to turn every learning opportunity into an assignment. As soon as there's homework and a deadline, learning becomes a chore that is supposed to be done alone.
Children aren't built for solitary work!
The homework that's required often proves not a child's intelligence, but his family's emotional fortitude as they survive night after night of scholastic drudgery.
I'm not going to make a detailed case here for a strictly limited homework load. (Excellent sources for concerned parents are cited at the end of this article.) I think it makes sense for parents to advocate strongly for homework policies that strictly limit the kinds and amounts of homework expected of their children.
Until we parents can rein in homework assignments that don't truly educate or inspire our children, we need to deal with all the feelings that erupt on school nights. Here are a few thoughts that may help keep your family headed in a constructive direction on the homework front.
How you can help:
Recognize that children need to play and to connect. This need is as vital to their health and wellbeing as their need for food and water. If your children are to use their intelligence, they need to be able to feel the love you have for them. That sense of connection is the engine behind their motivation to try and try again.
Learners must try things every which way. They must be able to bounce back from experiments that don't work. Children refuel in play and in loving connection.
Set up Special Time to refuel your child. A specific time each day, named Special Time, can help a child feel seen, in charge, and loved. During Special Time, he gets to choose what to do. Your job is to be warm, interested and pleased with him. Don't sink all your attention into the game or activity he chooses. It's your attention on him and your delight with him that's the prize. It's the antidote to a long day at school.
Let your child refuel with Special Time and play before homework. The connections he makes during play will help his mind be at its best for the task ahead. These connections won't entirely erase big feelings he may have about the unfairness of conditions at school. They won't remedy his lack of confidence in a particular subject. But they will help him connect with you and help you feel closer to him before you both step up to the emotional challenges of homework. It's always better to face a challenging situation knowing that someone's on your side. Play in Special Time sets that stage. You can get a video guide and checklist about Special Time here.
Plan for explosions of feelings. The big upsets children have over homework aren't a sign that something has gone wrong. You haven't failed as a parent. Your child isn't dim or weak. She has collected emotional tension from many incidents that didn't go well during the day. In addition, she's got some feelings that set up residence inside her many years ago — for example, being afraid of making mistakes; feeling like life is unfair (a very common feeling for children with siblings) or feeling too tired to function. She has her own particular flavors of feelings that arise when she's under stress.
Every day, her experience is painted with these negative interpretations of reality. Today's homework assignment provides the perfect peg on which to hang the feelings she's carried along for years. Plan for this.
Find an adult outlet for your own feelings. If you can't stand your child's habitual complaints, find a friend and spend half an hour or so noticing and talking about any persistent feelings that pop up for you when she begins to wilt at the prospect of homework. Rather than explode at her, take that explosion to a listening partner. Talk about it. Feel it. Say the cutting words you're tempted to say.
Stomp! Grab your listening partner by the shoulders and deliver that lecture. Let out the heat of your own contribution to the emotional brew. Finding an outlet for your own feelings and reactions will give you the power, later on, to help your child with the emotional work she needs to do to keep her interest in learning alive in spite of difficult school experiences and some holes in her confidence.
When your child's feelings arise, get close and listen. To move past the feeling that school is unfair, the feeling that his teacher doesn't really like him or that he can't do math, your child needs to cry, to rage, to tell you how completely he rejects his homework assignment.
This passionate emotional episode is exactly what his system needs in order to defuse the upset and to clear room for reasoning and enthusiasm again. You don't need to threaten or disapprove. Just listen. Life has been unfair. He has felt too little, too unloved, too stupid. It's not your fault. He's dissolving the power of those feelings by crying and fighting and telling you how convincing they are to him.
As you listen, you are healing the hurt he's expressing.
This is called Staylistening, and it has great power as a strategy for helping your child to regain his sense that life is good and that you are behind him.
Here's one example:
“My daughter skated through first- and second-grade math, but now it's getting more challenging and she has to memorize her multiplication tables. This is not something she enjoys, and she has really been resisting it.
The other day, I decided we needed to sit down with a pencil and paper and write the tables out to help her remember them. I was in a good enough place to warmly insist that she write the fours and the sixes.
She strangled the pencil through 4 x 1 = 4. At 4 x 2, she didn't like the look of the 2, so she furiously erased it. “This is stupid!” she yelled. She began to write 4 x 3 =, then hurled the pencil onto the tile floor and screamed at the top of her lungs, “I am the stupidest kid ever! No one likes me! I hate school! I hate being me! You are the worst Mommy EVER,” And on for maybe five minutes.
I handed her back the pencil. “I can see how hard this is for you, but I know you can do it. We're going to write the next one. Four times three is twelve.
She screamed right at me. No words, just a long, high, powerful blast of noise.
By 4 x 4 = 16, the tears started. She went back to her litany of self-hatred and cried hard. We made our way loudly through the fours, and she sat on my lap for a minute before we struggled through the sixes. We thought that was enough math for the day.
The next morning in the car, I asked her to go over her tables with me, and she recited all but one with ease. She is now working on the twelves. Working — not screaming or throwing things. It's pretty amazing how much tension can wrap itself around something like memorization.
Here's my own math equation: “Less tension = More learning.”
You can trust your child.
You can trust your child when she starts to cry or tantrum about homework. It's not a personal failure to cope. It's not a delaying tactic. It's your child's instinct to dump the emotional brew that stands in her way.
Sometimes, a big cauldron of feelings drains over time with several emotional episodes, each as passionate as the one before. The process can be loud, even hair-raising. But you can trust your child's sustained outburst to get the job done.
With your support, she wins back vital parts of her intelligence. Over time, you are rewarded with a more confident child.
Play Away School Stress shows you ways to connect with your child through play and dissolve their tensions around school.
Get this guide to setting limits warmly and found out how they could help the homework struggles at your house.
Further reading on homework can be found in:
The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish (Crown, 2006)
The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing by Alfie Kohn (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2006)
Patty Wipfler is the founder of the non-profit organization Hand in Hand Parenting and is the author of Listen: Five Simple Tools To Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges.