Q: Homework is the source of almost all friction in our house. No matter how little our sixth grader is assigned, it is always too much. Tonight was typical.
At dinner she said she hardly had any work to do and joined us to watch Carol Burnett. Before you knew it, it was 8:30 and the battle had begun. "Hardly any" turned out to be two pages of math she didn't understand at all (and her dad practically had to do it for her); a spelling test, which meant 15 minutes of drill -- after she had studied the words; a paragraph to write about a book she hadn't finished reading, which meant calling a friend to find out how it turned out.
And the biggie: She told us that tomorrow is the last possible extension for the project that was due on Monday, for which she had two weeks to finish. It's a printed map of the U.S., and she had to have all sorts of products glued on the states they come from -- cotton, corn, wheat, coal, whatever she could think of. We scrambled around helping her find things until nearly midnight and then we had to drag her up in the morning so she could glue the rest.
How can we break this routine?
A: You obviously are such caring parents, but sometimes, you know, we give a child so much helping, so much drilling and teaching that we forget what they need most. It's called respect.
A child will never be able to take care of herself until she is trusted to do it. It's the absence of your help, not its presence, that says, "You can do it, sweetie. You're terrific."
Otherwise you are telling your child that she is such a klutz, that she can't possibly do the work herself.
To change the pattern, your child needs a lot of structure in her life, so that it is easier for her to do her homework than not to do it. In setting it up, remember that every distraction is a handicap, like keeping chips and cookies in the house when your child is overweight.
This is what we think your child needs:
A conference between parent and teacher, so she knows that you are changing the rules at home.
A little pad for your daughter to clip in her notebook, where she can write down the assignments in the same place every day (although you won't ask about them).
A ban on all after-dinner television on school nights. There may be a special program one night when the new routine has become normal, but not for quite a while, and not often.
When a child is expected to do her own work, on time and without reminder, she not only becomes more self-confident, but she grows up to be accountable for her actions. Besides, to help your child is not only unfair to your daughter but to the other children in the class, for they are
After your child learns to depend on herself, you can offer to check
After your child leanrs to depend on herself, you can offer to check over her papers for spelling errors or listen to some memory work. But you don't hound and you don't chastise and you don't do the homework of an 11-year-old any more than you helped her paint a picture at 4. And if she didn't need your help then, she surely doesn't need it now.
Marguerite Kelly is co-author of "The Mother's Almanac." Questions may be addressed to Parents' Almanac, Style Plus, The Washington Post.