As parents, we often find ourselves with two competing parenting “ethics” and these are the source of a parenting dilemma that means we are uncertain of “which way to jump.”

I’d like to share another of my favourites: Homework

Homework

Here are some of the dilemmas we face:

  • If I don’t keep on her tail, she’ll never get her homework donebut
  • If I keep on her tail, she’ll never learn to work independently

 

  • If we start too soon after school, she’ll be too tiredbut
  • If we start too late, she’ll be too tired

 

  • She’s had six hours in school. Surely the teacher can cover the work in that timebut
  • She needs the homework to consolidate the learning she does at school

 

  • I can’t let her send work looking like that to schoolbut
  • It’s the teacher’s job to correct the homework and demand decent presentation

 

  • She is too exhausted to her homework. If I write her an excuse me note, she’ll think she can do that every nightbut
  • She has avoided the homework till it is too late. If I don’t write her an excuse me note, she’ll get into trouble and then she won’t want to go to school

No wonder many of us enjoy kindergarten, school holidays and our children beginning tertiary education (though personal experience has shown me that worrying, cajoling and nagging doesn’t stop there!) so much.

The best I can do is share with you some of the things, I now know – hindsight is a great teacher – that were useful in making homework slightly less painful in our family.

Take the “seat-belt approach”

The law says that our children need to wear seatbelts (Safety seats) from birth. Most of our children take it for granted that the car won’t go without everyone having their seat-belts on. Many of them have a patch in their lives when they resist getting into their seat-belts, but provided we don’t start the car till they are belted in, they take it for granted that seat-belts must be worn.

That is the attitude we need to take to homework. From the first little reading book, we need to take homework for granted. It doesn’t need explanation, cajoling, bribery or punishment. It is just something we do.

If our expectations are clear, our children will usually meet them.

Routines Rule

When our children reach home, whether straight after school or after afternoon activities, it greatly helps to have a predictable sequence of “chill out and feed” and then homework. There is no point in expecting our children – after being away from home and working and playing and interacting – to come straight in and do homework.

Let them start chilling out – playing, lounging, inside, outside, TV, DVDs, near you, away from you – whatever your experience tells you works best for your child – and deliver food and drink to that area. When you have a child whose brain is now capable of functioning and whose emotions are now settled down…let the homework begin.

Location, location, location

Most advice I read about homework has a bit which says “Make sure your child has a quiet space away from the noise and rush of family life. They need their own desk in their own room, if possible.”

It is great in theory, but I have not found that to be useful for our children and the “one size fits all” approach doesn’t take into account children’s different learning styles and their different levels of need for emotional closeness or their need for space. You know your child best. What sort of support do they need to get through their homework?

Many children need to be working on the kitchen table with a parent working nearby able to answer such questions as “What is the capital of England?” On a bad day, your child may even need the support of you sitting next to him while he struggles with something apparently simple that he is just too frazzled to deal with independently.

Other children prefer working in the next room with you in earshot and still others do like their own space. There is precious little point in providing a lovely desk, swivel chair and private study, for the child whose best piece of homework equipment is a parent sitting with them.

Quite infuriatingly, some children like to work lying on the floor. If that is their best writing position, you may be best letting it go and getting the homework complete rather than having a World War Three diversion on the merits of posture.

Similarly, some children work best in a quiet environment while others “zone in” better in the midst of noise.

Don’t irritate them

One of the most irritating things parents can do – I know this because my parents did it to me and I did it to my children – is to withhold simple information in the name of “teaching them to do independent research.”

Your child is in the middle of laboriously writing something and calls out, “Mum! Is it “t-h-i-e-r” or “t-h-e-i-r”?” The wrong response – when you know the answer and your child knows that you know the answer – is to say to a tired child who is doing their best to complete requirements that they don’t want to do at the end of a long day “Look it up in your dictionary.”

Just give them the answer and let them move on. There will be other times when it is good for your child to learn and practise research skills. At the end of a long day is not the time.

Sometimes you cover for them…

There will be times when your child is simply too exhausted to cope with homework and you might as well save your energy and keep your relationship with your child intact.

Don’t write fibs, just write the truth. “James was too exhausted to do his homework today. Please excuse him.”

If it seems to you, on flipping through his homework notebook, that there have been too many of these (one or two per term), it might be time to look at your lifestyle or the school’s homework demands and see what adjustments can be made.

…Sometimes you don’t

There comes a point in every parent’s life when our child is giving us lots of grief about homework and we are fed up with being the one who is doing all the work and having all the anxiety.

Skip the threats (“I won’t sign your homework book. I’m just going to write that you are a lazy little brat. OK then….Don’t do your homework. See if I care.”)

Instead, say – once – very calmly, “If you’re not going to do your homework, I’ll have to write James refused to do his homework tonight. Is that what you want me to do?”

If no homework happens, that’s what you write. The odds are that you will only have to do it once!

What if the teacher is too casual?

Sometimes, teachers don’t set homework, set it but don’t mark it, or set optional homework .

Some parents settle happily into a year of less stress and decide that their child can get everything they need educationally inside school hours. Some parents who are devoted believers in homework set their children homework or arrange extra tuition for them. This works well for the cooperative child, but is very tough on your parent/child relationship if you have a highly resistant child.

The most important thing is to avoid grumbling to the child or making our child’s life tough because we don’t agree with the teaching method. Go to the school and speak to them. Ask them their rationale. Leave your child out of it.

What if homework turns to custard?

Sometimes we find ourselves in the midst of a great meltdown – our child’s, ours, or both! The worst thing we can do is to plough on regardless.

Far better to call a mental health break, both of us calm down, and up the likelihood that our child will be able to complete his homework.

The best way I have found this to work is to stay calm and give the problem to the child and be prepared to meet their request for support. “This isn’t working. Take a break in your room. Come back when you are ready to tell me what sort of help you need to get your homework done.”

There is no magic

I still don’t know of any magic that will get homework dozen willingly and calmly every time. I do know what sometimes helps: a mixture of starting with a calmed down, rested and fed child, an environment that works for our child, a willingness to support our children to do their learning and the ability to recognise that the chronologically eight-year-old body in front of us may be emotionally two years old at the end of a long school day.

Good luck and remember that, by the time this is loaded onto the website, there may only be six weeks to the end of term!

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Diane Levy’s warm, humorous, practical and commonsense approach to raising children is evident in her writing, her speaking and her private practice in Auckland as a family therapist. Her main focus is on coaching parents. She is also the author of the best-seller “Of course I love you…NOW GO TO YOUR ROOM”, “They look so lovely when they’re asleep” and “Time Out for tots, teens and everyone in between."

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