Thursday, March 3, 2011

Dear Dr. Jill on Homework

Dear Dr. Jill:

My eight-year-old son is now in third grade.  He is getting a lot more homework this year than ever before.  Getting his homework done is a real problem.  He makes up all kinds of excuses, “forgets” that he has homework or waits until it is bedtime to even start his assignments.  We never had this problem with his older brother and we are at our wit’s end.  Please help!

Harried Homework Mom

Dear Harried Homework Mom:

As I am sure you already know, all children are different.  Therefore something that comes easily to your first child will not necessarily come easily to your second one.  First of all I have some great news.  Your child’s homework is his assignment, not yours!  This is good news because it frees you from homework-related anxiety and guilt.  Unless you plan to go to college with your son, he MUST learn to do his own homework.  Of course, this doesn’t mean you ignore his needs, it simply means that clarifying what is YOUR job and what is HIS job, can bring your homework-related stress level way down.  HIS job is to actually get the homework done.  HIS job is to learn the material the homework was assigned to teach or reinforce.  It is not YOUR job to do the homework for him (I once thought I was working on a diorama WITH one of my sons.  After it was done, I realized that I had somehow done all of the work while my son looked on admiringly.  What a clever boy!  His teacher sent home a note to let me know that the project was very well done and that “I” had received an “A”.  I never did another one of his assignments all by myself again.) 

It is not YOUR job to make sure his homework is the best in the class.  It is not YOUR job to show everyone how smart you are through his homework.  It is not YOUR job to demonstrate how cutting edge your computer equipment is or how amazing your artistic abilities are.  It is definitely not YOUR job to allow getting homework done to be a battleground that ruins your evenings and interferes with the quality of your relationship with your son.

So then, what is YOUR job?  Your job is to create an appropriate opportunity for homework to be done and to offer your son the guidance necessary to understand and complete the work.  The goal is for your child to learn how to bring home his assignment, figure out what must be done and do it according to his own skill level before bedtime.  An important puzzle piece we often forget is that it is also HIS job to develop good study habits as early in his academic career as possible. 

Your first step can be having a heart-to-heart talk with your son.  When you are both in a reasonably good mood, find someplace quiet where the two of you can talk.  Perhaps, you can take him out for ice cream, just the two of you. Tell him you don’t like the way the homework problem is affecting your relationship with him.  Ask him to share how he sees the problem.  You will likely be surprised how your perceptions and his differ.  Explain what YOUR job is and what HIS job is as described above.  Ask him for ideas about how you can get your job done and he can get his job done.  It is thrilling to discover how often children know exactly what they need when you ask them.  Gently offer your concerns, feedback and suggestions. The next day, put the plan into action.  Let him know that this is a work in progress and that you will revisit the issue in the next week or two.  From that point on, only assume responsibility for the part of the job that is YOURS.  If his plan doesn’t work, ALLOW natural consequences to take their toll.  If he “forgets” his homework, let him get a zero (a few zeros on third grade will not reduce his chances of getting into Harvard in ten years).  If he asks to stay up late because he didn’t start his homework at the agreed upon time, don’t let him stay up.  Be flexible if your own time constraints or family activities interfere with getting the homework done according to plan.  Inform the teacher, but don’t write notes explaining why his homework is incomplete or undone.  Do not nag or hassle him. If the homework is still not getting done properly in a week or two, THEN feel free to offer some new ideas. 

The good thing about being the parent is that you can set rules and expect them to be followed.  However, bear in mind what you can and can’t control before setting any rules.  You cannot MAKE him do his homework.  You can offer a quiet place to do so and you can insure that the TV is off (I know one Mom who had to physically remove the TV to keep her son from turning it back on).  You can tell him he must sit at his desk quietly for 30 minutes so he has the opportunity to do his homework but you cannot actually make him apply himself to the homework.  Tell him you are happy to help him understand the assignment or the concept but you will not do the whole assignment for him.  It is OK, however, to talk him through a problem or two if he needs some help him figuring out what needs to be done. 

If you are still having difficulty, you can try a star chart or reward system to encourage completion of homework.  Only use small rewards, such as more desert or an extra 15 minutes before lights out. Do not offer money.  If you offer big rewards for completing 30 minutes of homework in third grade, what will you need to offer when he is in 10th?  Limiting video games or TV until after homework is done usually works very well too.  Remember, your goal is to encourage intrinsic motivation to do his homework and develop good study skills.

When he is doing his homework regularly and independently, make sure to congratulate him.  You might consider taking him out for ice cream again, but this time it will be just for fun.  

Jill Squyres, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice.  

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