Q: My sixth grader-has been buckling under the weight of homework, and I find myself conflicted. I want him to succeed in school, obviously, but I also want his after-school hours to be relatively stress-free. Plus: I’m fuzzy on the balance between helping him and helicoptering. Any big-picture advice?
KATHY: Well, I did a little homework on homework, so let me offer some context here. In America in the early 1900s, homework was considered a bad thing: Ladies’ Home Journal campaigned against the practice, saying it damaged children’s health. Certain cities (like, dude, LA) even passed anti-homework ordinances. After WWII, reform movements began to rework homework (by making it more interesting), rather than abolish it. Then came Sputnik, and suddenly homework levels spiked, as educators feared we would fall behind the Soviets.
JEFF: We sure showed those commies, eh, Kathy? The Soviet Union is dissolved, and our democracy maintains the freedom to saddle our sprouting capitalists with nighttimes (nightmares?) of math facts.
KATHY: But we never got our own “glasnost” stage, did we? We just got more dictatorial. In 1983, a report called “A Nation at Risk” denounced the “rising tide of mediocrity” in American schools, and the homework got piled on higher. The general consensus, now, is that high school homework has increased somewhat, but elementary school homework has shot way up. Here’s a stat for you, from a 2007 University of Michigan study: Kids ages 6 to 9 spend more than two hours a week on homework compared with 44 minutes in 1981. You will not be tested on these facts — but the reader should know that if the boy is buckling, he’s not alone.
JEFF: It’s good for me to take all this in, because I often hear echoes of my mom when I’m hounding the kids to do their homework. It hadn’t occurred to me that their load is heavier than mine was. (Does that mean I should nag more, you think?)
With homework, our parenting sometimes can be indirect — such as when we challenge teachers for the benefit of our kids. I’ve done so several times when I’ve had concerns with what my kids bring home: It’s just busywork or, worse, it’s poorly conceived, such as math problems worded vaguely enough that both A and B are feasible answers. My daughter, a fourth-grade scholar but very much inside-the-box, hates when I point out how the answer the teacher wants isn’t the only correct response. My mischievous sixth-grader, on the other hand, loves debunking his teacher’s answer key.
KATHY: I like how you guys take on The Man, Jeff — but it sounds like motivation isn’t the problem with your kids.
JEFF: Actually, it’s not just pulling teeth but an unanesthetized root canal to get my son to do his homework. Helping him find unwanted, though accurate, answers just perks up his interest a little because it plays into his personality.
KATHY: Got it — so maybe the questioner’s son has plenty in common with your boy and mine,too. I’ve tried to come at this difficulty in many ways, which means, in keeping with our Soviet theme today, my husband and I have shuttled from Leninism to perestroika and back. At first, we said absolutely no screen time until your homework is done, but that foundered on my son’s ADHD; he’s so spent when he comes home, I have to allow for downtime after school. Now that he’s 15, we’ve backed off on forcing the issue. We set a time, we say we’re here to help, we aid him on organization because of his ADHD — but it’s up to him to buckle down. He has to want to succeed more than we want him to. Otherwise, there’s no ownership of his own work.
JEFF: Stepping back like that sounds hard, especially because I know that your husband is a tutor. So John must have a lot of insight into how kids handle homework, right?
KATHY: He does — but that doesn’t mean we have it figured out for our own kids. I will say that he sees the whole enchilada. Sometimes the dynamic is too intense between a parent and child, so that only a third party (like a tutor) can break the stalemate. Some kids fare better when they have non-intrusive parental company; if you can sit at the same table and do paperwork, your diligent presence can set the tone. Some kids need frequent breaks (we set our stove timer for 20-minute intervals). And don’t forget, most teachers will meet you halfway with homework problems, setting up after-school sessions or breaking the load into more manageable blocks. Reach out to the school; you shouldn’t feel alone in finding a solution.
JEFF: This sounds like more homework than I can handle. And you know what I want? Your empathy. So that’s what I try to remember to bring with me when I trudge into my kids’ rooms and nudge them from Legos and Instagram back to math and reading. It’s not an easy job they have — even if they do get to live here rent-free — and whatever means I utilize to get them to do their work always has to incorporate a palpable dose of I’m-on-your-side understanding.
Jeff Wagenheim and Katharine Whittemore were founding editors at the innovative parenting magazine Wondertime. Whittemore now writes the “Seven Books About . . .” book review column for the Boston Globe. Wagenheim writes for Sports Illustrated and the Globe (covering sports and the arts).Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.