NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

December 4, 2013

The Daily Parent: How to avoid the homework wars

The Daily Parent
Lori Day

---- — EDITOR’S NOTE: The Daily Parent is a new column by Newburyport resident Lori Day that will focus on parenting, education, and other topics of interest to mothers and fathers. Day, an educational psychologist and parenting coach, writes about parenting, education, child development, gender, media and pop culture for The Huffington Post and other sites. It will appear regularly in the Port Home section.

In millions of households across the country, there is no greater drama than the nightly struggle to get kids to do their homework.

We’ve all seen “homework guidelines,” be they in self-help books, online or in school handbooks. There are so many of them that it can be confusing and overwhelming to the parent who is already confused and overwhelmed. In truth, there are a few simple goals and principles that are reasonably intuitive and enable informed decisions about homework supervision down the road.

Here’s how parents can help the “typical” child (without significant learning or behavioral issues) develop day-to-day self-reliance and, ultimately, strong lifelong study habits. The following four tips will help parents establish greater daily tranquility at the kitchen table, while propelling them toward one of the holy grails of parenting — the eventual removal of themselves from extreme homework supervision, a not-so-fun sport.

1. Understand and make peace with the fact that your children may hate doing homework. It’s just a reality that there are many more interesting things kids prefer to do, especially in the electronic age, and it is not always possible to make homework inherently appealing to them.

Accepting how your children feel about their homework is not the same thing as agreeing with them; it’s about adopting a mindset that allows you to modulate how you approach your child’s homework behaviors with basic empathy, while still setting rules, boundaries and reasonable expectations.

2. Try to facilitate rather than intimidate. I’ve been there. You can beg, plead, bribe, cajole and threaten, but these tactics only achieve temporary acquiescence and, in the long run, lose effectiveness entirely, forcing you to continually find ways to up the ante. It’s best to stay positive even when you don’t feel that way.

Use praise, focus on what kids are doing well, downplay poor performance and, in any way you can, defuse the tension. Humor is always good! A little levity goes a long way toward cooling things down. Let your children feel that you are on their team. You expect them to do their homework, but you will not engage in power struggles that exhaust everyone and serve as a passive-aggressive method that kids use to continue avoiding the work.

3. Shift the responsibility from you to your child. This can be hugely challenging, but it is crucial that children learn as early as possible that if they do not do their homework, the consequences fall on them, not you. The only way they can learn this is if you are willing to let them fail. As long as you are providing appropriate support and a structured environment, it is OK to let your child assume the bulk of the responsibility.

Young children who are just learning to do homework obviously need hand-holding, but older kids, especially those nearing and in middle school, can be expected to be increasingly independent. They can come to you with questions, but it is not your job to “get them through” their homework every day by standing over them and interacting with them the whole time. Step out of that role and let your upper elementary or middle school child try to fly solo, especially on routine homework. If he or she does not do it, let the zero or the “incomplete” be his or her teacher.

It is easier to let this happen to a younger child than an older one whose grades increasingly matter, so as soon as you feel your child is ready, give both of you the gift of letting natural consequences take their course. There are no guarantees that your child will stop procrastinating/not doing the work, but the odds of your child internalizing that this is not parent-homework, but kid-homework, do improve if you don’t get sucked into being too hands-on.

4. Allow your child to experience the authentic pride in a job well done. If parents help too much with homework, kids are robbed of a primary benefit, which is the satisfaction of learning and accomplishing something on their own. Kids who receive too much academic support sometimes learn to feel helpless, and remain overly reliant on adult support well into high school and often beyond. Kids grow into more capable and confident adults when they are allowed to succeed and fail on their own terms.

This is not to say that you should never help your child with homework, just that you should pay attention and notice if your child has a knee-jerk dependence on you when the work becomes the slightest bit challenging. In those moments, “I know you can do it” goes a lot further than, “Here, let me see it.” The sooner you deliver this message, the easier on everyone.

If you are already trapped in this cycle, breaking it will take time and patience, but can be done through careful planning and perseverance. If your child really needs significant extra help, or does not receive guidance well from parents, obtain a professional tutor or seek advice from the school. This allows you to stay only lightly involved, while remaining supportive.

All of the above suggestions assume that parents are taking into account the age of their children. Very young children should not be abandoned at homework time! It is all about the process of helping kids gain independence and self-reliance gradually over time. If the homework wars can be circumvented before they start, children are more likely to develop the independent study skills needed for the later grades by experiencing increased levels of personal responsibility across the earlier grades.

Parents will also experience increased levels of sanity — a win-win!

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Lori Day is an educational psychologist, consultant and parenting coach with Lori Day Consulting in Newburyport. Her first book, titled “Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More,” will be published in May 2014.