As I read Carol Dykstra's September article, I kept hoping that the mother's continually doing her children's homework would end before the article did. Unfortunately, it did not happen. She kept bailing them out of their responsibility -- even when they were in college.
As a family and child therapist, I have guided, coaxed and led parents through numerous entanglements around homework. I worked with one family in which the father was so invested in his son passing that he did the son's homework for him. Even with this effort, the boy barely managed to pass into the 11th grade -- Dad could not take the tests for his son. After considerable counseling, the father began to do less. I wish I could report that as father did less, son did more, but I cannot. The son did what he had always been taught to do: nothing.
Reaching a crossroads where the parent stops doing and the child does not pick up the slack is a dilemma that is very painful and difficult for parents. If I, the parent, don't do my child's work and he won't either, he fails. To most parents, this is a horrible prospect and too often an unacceptable choice. Failure, however, can be a very valuable experience. Most importantly, the child learns that despite all that his parents give him, what he does with his life and what he does in school ultimately is up to him.
The problem is if we make our children pass by doing for them, we are giving them a very distorted message about how the world operates. In my experience, when you go to work, no one is willing to take on the responsibility of your job. If our children learn at home that someone (in this case Mom or Dad) will always pick up the slack, they will later erroneously expect the same arrangement at work.
As parents, we need to provide structure and discipline. For example, set aside a specific place and time for homework, one which is non-negotiable. The parent's responsibility then is to see that the child follows that schedule. Ultimately, however, only the child can decide whether or not he will do the homework. By allowing a child room to pass or fail, parents are saying, "This is your life. I am willing to help, but you are the only one who can live your life."
If a child chooses (and I mean chooses) to fail, he has to deal with not moving on with his friends, and he has to cope with the stigma of failing when he could have passed. It is like walking a tightrope: If the rope is one foot off the ground, one tends to be more careless because safety is only a foot away. Raise the rope to 10 feet and one's concentration goes up accordingly.
I am not minimizing how emotionally difficult it is to let one's child make a mistake and live with the consequences. But if we don't, we are telling our children, "You are not able to handle your mistakes, so I'll do it." No parent consciously means to say this. Give your kid a break, let him do his homework. And if he doesn't, let him learn from that, too.
Thomas Oberdorfer works with families in Arlington and Alexandria.