Hold The Limit, Honor the Struggle: Homework Battles and How to Help

Happy girl doing homework in a post about overcoming homework battlesIt's the beginning of fall and as surely as leaves will drop, so will the homework. Pages and pages of it. Sometimes whole binders worth.

Homework can be the source of many arguments, and I wanted to take a look at why and what we can do about it.

In order to really understand what's going on, it helps to look at what's happening for both the parents and the kids, because homework is challenging for both of us in ways that are diametrically opposed. This is how we so often wind up in conflict.

Why Parents Get So Caught Up in Homework

As parents, we may be feeling a very understandable desire for our child to “do well.” We may even be concerned that if our child can't do homework well, they won't do well in school, and then they won't do well in life.

Sometimes our own bad memories about school may get us unconsciously stirred up, and in an effort to protect our child from such experiences, we may pressure our child to get things started off on the right foot.

Or maybe we just want to get that darn homework over with so we can play! Perhaps we are tired and exhausted from a long day taking care of our other children, and we're already thinking about the impending bedtime and dreading yet another power struggle.

Maybe we are stressed out because we are still at the end of our own work day, and we are secretly hoping our child's homework will buy us a few extra minutes to finish up our loose ends.

As you can see, there may be many different reasons we parents can get stressed about homework. Whatever our reasoning, our answer is often the same: Get that homework done! Do it as soon as possible so we don't have to worry, fight, beg, or barter.

Why Kids May Resist Homework

But now let's think about what's happening in our kids' worlds.

They've had a whole day away from us, and who knows what challenges they had during the day? Maybe their snack got lost, or someone teased them, or their new best friend suddenly won't talk to them. Maybe they got called up to the board to answer a problem and got laughed at for not knowing how to do something.

Maybe they had a great day and are longing to share it with us!

Or maybe it was just a whole lot of boring.

Whatever their day, what they really need when they see us is a safe landing. A place to let it all go so they can regroup, and reconnect with who they are when they are safe at home, in their family. 

Homework does not accomplish that. 

Am I suggesting that homework is unimportant?

Not at all. Unless it isn't to you! Parents must parent according to their own values, and the values of the school they are part of. Some parents and schools place a huge emphasis on homework, others don't at all. So one thing to wonder about is are you at the right school for your family's values? If homework is important to you, then by all means you can help support your child to complete it, but that is not the same thing as just forcefully telling them to do it.

How to Support a Child Through Homework Struggles

Mom and girl battling over homeworkAssuming you feel homework is important, then here are some great ways to help support your child to get it done, all while maintaining everyone's sanity and goodwill.

First and foremost, FILL THEIR CUP – literally and figuratively. One way to do this is to offer special time or any form of child-led reconnection before even attempting homework. Some way of letting them see you are not just another thing in their life needing something from them. You care about who THEY are, and you want to give them a chance to be in charge and show you whatever would give them joy, while you join in with them.

Also food! Their brains need filling at this point too. Many will have foregone good nutrition throughout the day and they need protein and some good healthy fats to get their brains functioning again. For some kids, a snack and this special time together will be enough. That alone will get them feeling abundant and clear thinking again, and literally at that point they will want to do (or at least be open to doing) their homework.

Fostering Growth Mindset with Connection

But what about the kids who don't? Well, here are some tips for the ones that need a bit more…

  • Don't underestimate the power of your presence! Sometimes parents think, “Well I don't understand a certain subject, so how can I help?” But often, just the act of you caring and sitting close is enough. Literally snuggling with your younger child while they do their homework can make it a time of sweet connection and be very healing. I used to have one of my kids do all his homework while he snuggled on my lap and I looked on, or even read a book. This worked well for us for years.
  • If a child is older or more guarded, then add in some Playlistening. If they say the homework is boring, pretend that every time you look at it, you fall dead asleep, and just can't figure out why. Anything that gets the giggles flowing is helpful – especially if you are allowing yourself to be a bit of a buffoon, taking on a lesser “power” position than them. This will conversely waken up their own feelings of confidence and power, exactly the feelings they need to access in order to tackle those pages!
  • Let them feel smart and like they get the homework way more than you do. For instance: “They want you to divide what into whaaaaat?? That's craaaazy!!!!” Let them teach you. This again will boost their confidence. Instead of jumping into teaching them, wonder about the problems with them. Be by their side. Literally and figuratively, believing in them while you let them struggle but are right there caring and helping when needed. Your belief in them will go a longer way than you might imagine. This also brings up the idea that we need to clean up our beliefs about our kids because people tend to become whatever we believe about them. Sometimes parents get so fed up, we say things like “You always give up,” or “You're going to fail.” Those may be our fears but that does not mean they are their reality. Instead, honor their struggle and tell them you know they will figure it out.

Why? Well, it all comes down to the extraordinary power of growth mindset and the power of “yet.” It turns out that teaching children that every mistake they make is actually a super helpful learning curve that just made them smarter is a very powerful way to instill hope. And hope breeds perseverance. And perseverance breeds success. They may not have gotten it fully YET, but they are on their way. Their success is inevitable. Think of Thomas Edison's wonderful quote: “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”

When The Struggle Gets Tough

What about kids who still won't do their homework? On some level, if you are offering all this contact and support and your child still won't do it, this means they can't yet.

Not that they don't have the mental or academic ability, but that something substantial is blocking them from their own power and belief in themselves.

Just the other day, my 8-year-old was trying to go over some summer math sheets, and got so discouraged by a multiplication problem that he literally spent one hour upset. I tried to help in all the ways I mention here, but his brain just wouldn't have it.

Even as we tried to connect and return to the problem, breaking it down into ever simpler components, he got to a place where he sat there in tears saying I don't know what 1 plus 1 is.

“I DON'T KNOW!!! ”

And you know what?

I believe him.

In that moment, he did not have access to his prefrontal cortex. His brain had decided he was unsafe and so at that moment he was in full fight or flight survival mode.

Think of it like this, if you just had a car accident, and were standing shaking by the side of the road and I asked for your phone number – a number you clearly know – it literally might be impossible for you to remember it at that moment. So I fully gave up on the homework.

Instead, I just sat with him and did my best to cuddle with him although he wanted none of it. I gave him some time to blow off some steam and then we went and played. About two hours later he suddenly came up to me, completed homework in hand and a huge grin on his face.

Hold the Limit on Homework But Honor the Struggle

In general, whenever we have to hold a limit for our children – and homework is certainly one such limit – it works best to really honor their struggle as we hold it, to let them wail and cry, knowing those tears get out the gunk that stands in the way. You are likely to have a smarter, stronger kid on the other end.

Those tears may look like refusal or failure but they often pave the road to success  – if you and your child both know how to walk that road.

Read How Does Connection Play Help with Homework? for more on how to reconnect after school

Before homework, schedule Special Time. Get this guide and checklist on how to hold Special TimeSave

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