Q: My second-grader has started resisting doing homework. I am unsure what approach to take, while also giving him time to relax and play. If I offer incentives (no TV/game time or dessert until it’s done), then he’ll end up waiting so long it delays bedtime. If I discipline him, it becomes an emotional power struggle. That’s not a routine I want to add to our weeknights, nor do I want to be the one responsible for ensuring he does his homework. I want him to learn consequences early. I’d like to just leave it on him as to whether he does it or not (with just one question — “Do you have homework?” — as a friendly reminder each night), but is that approach developmentally appropriate for a second-grader? I keep telling myself, “Just let him get a bad grade,” and then enforce a consequence for bad grades, but is that too far off for a consequence for a 7-year-old? I keep floating between all these approaches, and I know I just need to be consistent.
A: You are wrestling with all of the issues when it comes to parenting and homework, and this is great. Parenting is usually more questions than answers, and grappling with these things is how you will find your way.
My favorite part of this letter is that you have provided an exhaustive list of what is not working. Let’s look at it.
First off, rewards in the form of TV, game time or dessert. Why is this failing? In his great book “Drive,” Daniel H. Pink describes how rewards and punishments (different sides of the same coin) work for humans when it comes to low-level work, but when it comes to higher-level thinking or tasks that have natural motivations built in, rewards and punishments become a hindrance.
We all kind of know this, deep down. The more rewards or punishments we offer children, the worse we feel. The children can smell desperation wafting off of us like cheap cologne. It also shows that we think we have to dangle a reward in front of our child for them to want to do well.
What else is not working here? You are (wisely) backing off harsh discipline and consequences, because you know that is the fast track to nightly struggles. If you start having power struggles over homework, you will create a strong correlation between fighting and homework, and arguing will replace your child’s ability to become independent and enjoy learning. Constant conflict hinders maturation, and no parent wants that.
But you are inching toward some good ideas by the end of your question. You write, “just let him get a bad grade?” That brings up some of the tough truths of the situation.
It is time to find out what is really going on, and part of that process may involve your son missing some assignments. Don’t go into this with a hope and prayer, though. Create a plan.
First of all, let your son know that he is responsible and old enough to take some ownership of his work, and that you are no longer going to be so demanding or commanding. Create a simple system with him. Get a calendar (I like this one) and have a chat about what works for both of you. Write down your plan.
A sample plan of a homework schedule may be:
Monday, 3:30-5:30 p.m. play, snack and TV; 6 p.m. dinner; 6:30 p.m. homework.
Tuesday, soccer until 5 p.m.; 5-6 p.m. rest; 6 p.m. dinner; 6:30 p.m. homework.
Wednesday, 3:30 p.m. quick snack and homework, then playing outside; 6 p.m. dinner.
A plan like this can be changed weekly and customized to fit any family: single parents, overscheduled parents, parents with shared custody, parents who have nannies, or parents who simply need more structure.
The point of creating a plan isn’t for it to be perfect and last forever. Rather, it puts in place the structure that will, in turn, bring about the discipline that is lacking.
Now, here is when things are going to get interesting.
You are going to allow this plan to work (with some gentle and loving reminders but no nagging). You are going to send an e-mail to his teacher to let her know that your son is taking some ownership of his work and that it may get a little messy. Openly ask her for support.
Here are some things that could happen:
●Your son rises to the occasion, flourishes and completely rocks his homework. You can stop hassling him and allow him to soar.
●Your son realizes that this schedule is not working and he needs to change it. So go ahead and work with him on that. (This is awesome, by the way, because it is crucial for your son to understand his learning style and what he needs to succeed.)
●Your son totally slacks off and does not complete his homework. Then you become the “noticer.” Does he understand the assignments but find them boring, repetitive or useless? This may help you to find more challenging work for him. Or does he not understand the work in front of him, making him too anxious to begin? This may help you seek more support for him, in or out of school. Do you notice that he doesn’t know how to organize himself? That he cannot figure out what happens first, second, last? You may need to assist him a little more, help him practice organizing. Or has he simply never experienced a negative consequence of not completing his work because someone is always chasing him, nagging him or rewarding him to do his work? This is where experiencing a negative consequence at school can snap a child to attention. Sometimes all it takes is a look of disapproval from a teacher to help him learn that this is a real expectation. When all the experts say we need to raise kids with “grit” and “resilience,” this is what they are talking about.
But before I finish, let me just give you some words of support.
Homework in second grade is simply not that big of a deal (despite what our culture tells us). So stop harassing him, and take it easy on yourself and your child. Get some perspective, and keep the big picture in mind. Let the feelings around homework be “We’ve got this. I believe in you. We can do this.”
Keep a smile on your face. So many parents are grimacing and brow-furrowing that the overall message is that school (and life) is a grind. Be aware of your body language and your facial expressions.
Finally, remember, “connection, then direction.” All children become more cooperative, easygoing and accommodating when they feel deeply connected to their caregivers. Concentrate on all of the great characteristics of your son, keep hope alive, and allow for some discomfort. He will get there.
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