Stixrud is a clinical neuropsychologist in Washington and a faculty member at Children’s National Medical Center and George Washington University Medical School. He lectures and writes on the adolescent brain, meditation, and the effects of stress, sleep deprivation and technology overload on the brain.
By Ned Johnson and William Stixrud
The school year always starts with so many good intentions for our kids. A fresh notebook, an organized backpack, a routine that involves putting away coats and bags at the end of the day before raiding the refrigerator. As for homework, well, this year, you’re resolved that your child will complete it at the same time and place each day, with no arguments. Usually by October, all of those good intentions — particularly when it comes to homework — have dissolved into a big old puddle of tears and mixed up papers.
We’d like to recommend a new homework routine this year.
In the course of our work — Bill is a clinical neuropsychologist and Ned runs a test-prep tutoring center — we hear a lot from parents about homework. It’s usually along the lines of, “I dread the time between dinner and bed, because those are the homework hours,” or “It’s like a war zone,” or “It’s so stressful to get him to do his work!”
We can easily hold court for hours about how we don’t feel mandated homework does much good, and how homework in excess is damaging.
But leaving the argument about the efficacy of homework aside, we have simple advice on the psychology of this everyday “battle”: Don’t fight. It takes two to fight, so don’t.
Provide a quiet space and designated time when your child can focus on his work. Be available to help during a set time, almost like “office hours,” if he needs you. If your child has special learning needs and can’t do homework by herself, try to find a tutor, or negotiate with the teacher about assigning less. But when it comes to that witching hour at home, adopt a new mantra: “I love you too much to fight with you about your homework.”
There are four primary reasons it makes no sense to fight about homework:
1) You might find yourself enforcing rules and attitudes you don’t really believe in. (Memorization and worksheets, for instance, are not typically sparks for curiosity or representative of family principles.)
2) When parents work harder than their kids to see that their work gets done, their kids get weaker, not stronger. It gives the kids the message that someone other than them is responsible for their own work and learning. It’s often only when parents have had enough and say, “I can’t take this anymore — you’re on your own” that kids step up to do what they’ve always known they needed to.
3) You can’t force a kid to do something he’s dead set against. If your child resists your attempts to get him to work, what are you going to do? Hold his hand as he moves his pencil or types? Will he really learn that way? Is that really what you want? And, are you prepared to do that all year? All of high school? Until he graduates from college?
4) While teachers, coaches, and tutors all have their roles, only parents can love their kids unconditionally and provide them with a safe haven at home, a place where they can rest and recover from the stresses outside. Fighting about homework brings school stress home and might encourage your child to seek a safe base elsewhere. Remember that homework makes many kids feel anxious, and their avoidance is a common response. Fighting with them about it only raises the temperature even more.
This year, see your role as a consultant, not a manager or the homework police. Be informative and supportive, but not controlling. At least 60 years of research has validated the fact that this style of parenting — authoritative parenting — is the most effective approach. It emphasizes self-direction and respect for the child. It signals that you’re willing to help your child be successful, but that you’re not going to force him to do anything. Kids want their lives to work out, and few want to go to school without having done their homework. Treating them respectfully shows that you understand that.
If you make clear that homework is your child’s responsibility, not yours, and he/she doesn’t do any of it, that doesn’t mean the consultant model isn’t working. In fact, it’s working perfectly. Now she gets to figure out how to solve the problem. Let him. Take a long view and remember that even if she struggles in the short term, she’s learning how to build a core competency.
This is a particularly hard pill to swallow for parents of high school-aged kids, who say that the stakes have just become too high for their kid to fail. The stakes are high, but not as high as the need for him to run his own life, and to learn from his own mistakes.
The high school kids who need their parents to constantly be on them about their homework aren’t ready for college by a long shot. Their greatest need is for clarity that this is their life, and they’ll get out of it what they put into it.