Solutions to the Homework Dilemma

The ritual usually begins with the first after school visual sighting of a child by a parent: “How much homework do you have?” Eventually comes the inevitable “Have you done your homework?”. For many parents, a significant amount of their evenings are spent assisting, checking, or arguing about homework. Time available to spend with our children is so limited and so precious. Is this how it should be spent? No!

What is a parent’s responsibility when it comes to a child’s homework? Much less than most parents assume. You have all read or been told the basics: provide a reasonable workspace (which, for any given child, can be almost any physical context in which they can do schoolwork) and make sure there is a quiet and reasonable amount of “work time” set aside in each child’s schedule. Most parents try to do this but it is wasted advice because for children who are not doing their homework well or consistently, time and place are almost never the issue.

Helping children with their homework is also supposed to be a way that parents demonstrate their interest in a child’s schoolwork. The same thing can be done much more effectively by having discussions about what a child is learning in school and by parents modeling the value of learning in their lives and in shared activities with their children. “What are you discussing in Social Studies these days?” is far better than questions that focus primarily on grades and homework. Doing a project around the house with a child that requires learning some knowledge or skill is not only an excellent way to convey the value of education but also enables a positive parent-child bond to be developed. Allowing a child to teach YOU something, e.g., about computers, music, or whales, is another great way to reinforce the power of knowledge.

Let’s start with the basic problem. Homework is usually a contract between the teacher and the student. Unless you, as the parent, have been specifically engaged by the teacher, such as the elementary school pattern of being asked to quiz your child on spelling words every Thursday evening, IT IS NOT YOUR CONTRACT! We want our children to learn about being responsible. We want our teachers to help our children learn. If parents are too involved in pushing children to do their homework or reviewing and correcting it, only bad things happen. You hurt your relationship with your child and lose out on time that could be spent enjoying each other, which in the long run is far more important than various homework assignments. Some children will specifically not do the work because they are angry at you, because they learn to rely on you to get them to do it, or because that’s their way to get your attention. None of this helps your child.

Correcting homework so the child turns in a neat and/or successful assignment leads the teacher to believe the child actually understood the work or has developed the proper level of responsibility. It is much better to allow the child to bring in sloppy work, incorrect work, or no work, and allow the teacher to know what the child is actually able to do. It should then be the teacher’s responsibility to provide the consequences to help motivate the child and the skills needed to do the work. If there is a special problem affecting the child’s ability to learn or do schoolwork, then the teacher must partner with the parent to help solve the problem. But that is not the case with the majority of children.

It is also unfortunate that a lot of homework is rote and boring to children. After spending their day doing schoolwork, it is important for assignments to have some novelty and high interest in order to compete with the more interesting out-of-school options to which a child has access. I think homework has become too much of a bad thing, especially at the elementary school level. I call it a bad thing because most of that work belongs in school, where teachers can correct misunderstandings quickly and the children who get it can be allowed to do something else.

Schools have generally not adjusted to changes in our society. Today’s family is typically one where both parents work or they live in different homes. Children and their parents need more opportunity to spend time together having some fun. Parents are drained and stressed out. That’s another reason why homework often becomes a flash point for conflict. Many children have a visit that night with a parent they don’t see daily and homework is a struggle to work into that hectic and emotionally charged all-too-brief visit.

I tell parents who have little time to spend with their child and must choose between helping with homework or doing something fun, do something fun. Encourage the child to try to get the work done before time with mommy or daddy. Set a time limit for the homework and what’s done is done and that’s it. Teachers will tell you how much time they expect your child to spend on homework. There is no established correlation between homework and grades and success in life. We overvalue success in school. We erroneously think that where a child goes to college really matters. It doesn’t. We waste millions on private schooling thinking that it gives a greater guarantee that our child’s life will turn out well. It doesn’t.

School doesn’t teach resiliency or love or many of the personal qualities that the real world will demand for success at work or in relationships. School doesn’t create the parent-child bond that will give your children a guide to turn to when they are facing the more significant challenges of real life many years later, long after school has become a distant memory. Thus, I recommend that homework should be a school-based issue, not a parental responsibility. You have your own things to teach your child and to share with your child. Don’t be “homework police.”