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You and Your Child’s Homework

Doable solutions to a perennial source of tension.

Pixabay, Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, Public Domain

Homework was probably first assigned the first time a teacher was frustrated that students weren’t learning enough—and that's probably when civilization began.

Since then, legions of kids have pleaded, yelled, lied, done everything possible to avoid the dreaded task.

Alas, it falls to the parent to be homework’s policeman, although perhaps a case could be made for leaving homework to the child’s discretion. Doing so is more likely to build intrinsic motivation rather than fear of punishment.

Leaving the homework decision to the child teaches them to not blindly accept authority, doing homework just because the teacher assigns it. It avoids nightly fights, and without your lifting a finger, your child will reap the consequences of doing or not doing homework that should encourage responsibility. Besides, most kids' ultimate success or even work ethic won't be decimated because they only did homework when they felt it was worth doing.

That said, it’s probably true that most homework probably does increase learning—After all, time-on-task is among education’s few truisms. And kids who don’t do homework get lower report card grades. That may matter little in elementary school, except that it’s probably wise to establish good habits early. Also, kids’ self-esteem is based heavily (too heavily?) on their grades.

But in high school, the homework escape artist’s GPA will probably be downgraded, thereby reducing college options, although even that may be far from critical. For example, less-selective colleges are more teaching- than research-oriented than are designer-label universities, so your homework-avoidant kid may get a better education there. And at such colleges, there's usually more time for extracurriculars, which arguably are more central to life success, not to mention pleasure, than their GPA.

But at minimum, homework teaches discipline. Alas, we all must do things we don’t like. So maybe it is best to start training early.

Indeed, most parents, even radical counterculturists, tend to get conservative when it comes to their kid's homework—they want Junior to get it done, maybe not to the pinnacle of perfection, but at least to get the darn thing finished.

In that spirit of moderation, here are some practical tactics for getting the kiddo to do homework and maybe learn something along the way. The focus here is on what's realistic in the real world—I call these tips, as all in this series, doables.

Ritualize

Can you get your budding bumpkin to agree on a time each day to do the dastardly deed? A logical time is a few minutes after getting home, maybe after a snack, and if you’re there, after telling of the day’s boons and brickbats. Or if, like many kids, sitting for six hours in school makes your kid crave movement, fine, send your pride and joy out to burn some adrenaline and return just in time to do the homework before dinner. Post-dinner is usually worse because food coma or other fatigue is more likely to set in.

Negotiate

Unless you’re blessed with one of the rare kids who do their homework without your having to peep, you may need to negotiate a bit, at least when first trying to inculcate some self-starter-hood. For example:

Kid: Do I have to do my homework?

Parent: What do you think? Anything you want to look forward to as soon as you get it done?

Kid: Don’t give me that. I hate homework, and tonight’s is hard!

Parent: I’ll make you a deal. You start, and if you reach a hard part, I’ll help you just enough to get over the hump. So, do you want to do your homework in your room or at the kitchen table?

Kid: Nowhere.

Parent laughs and shoots a schoolmarmy look.

Kid toddles off. One minute later...

Kid: I need help!

The parent spends only the minimum time helping, not doing the hard part, but asking the child a question in hopes that will enable him or her to do it.

Kid: Why do I need to do this anyway?! I get enough math in school, and I don’t even need to know that: calculating the volume of a tetrahedron?!

Parent: Well, it probably helps improve your thinking skills, and you can’t say that’s not important.

Kid: I improve my thinking skills more by solving the problems in video games.

Parent: Good, do your homework, and then you can play a video game stuffed with thinking problems—and I’m not referring to Grand Theft Auto.

Kid: That’s not fair. That’s my favorite game!

Parent: OK, this is kind of fun, but it’s taking too long (with a pleasant look). Get the darn homework done, show it to me, let’s have dinner, and then you can play...

Kid: Grand Theft!

Parent: For 15 minutes. I’ll set a timer, you monster, you!

That whole exchange took less than two minutes, avoided undue oppositionality, made a reasonable case for homework sans long lecture, and, if anything, strengthened the parent-child bond. And while on one hand, the playful negotiation rewarded the child’s stalling, a conversation like that boosts the chances that the child will subsequently do homework with less, and eventually no, shenanigans—maybe.

Of course, I’m well aware that many parents are too rarely in the mood for negotiation, let alone humorous negotiation, so you might view such an approach as merely aspirational. Remember, If your child runs slipshod or doesn’t do part or even all of his homework that night, life as we know it won't end. A little perspective can make life easier for all concerned. And that’s certainly doable.

The most recent installments of my series, Doables: baby steps to a better life, focus on the K-12 parent’s role: choosing a school, homework, friends, sex, and soon, drugs, and preparing your child for college or other post-high-school options.

I read this aloud on YouTube.

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