I never did ask the teacher these questions point-blank, but it rang true to me when my son asked me to back off. When it comes to school and schoolwork, I prefer to be an engaged parent rather than an involved parent. Starting in kindergarten, it is my children’s job, not mine, to remember their lunches and library books for school, to know what the school rules are and to follow them, and, yes, to do their own homework.
Engaged means I ask if they have homework, I stay nearby – doing my own thing – while it gets completed, I assist when the kids ask for help, and generally set a tone that places great importance on schoolwork. Involved would mean digging through their backpacks, looking up what the assignments are, sitting beside them going over each item, nagging, making them recopy messy work, or doing anything for them. (It might sound like I’m not curious about what my children are doing at school. In fact, I’m intensely interested, and I quietly peek over shoulders and eagerly pore over their completed, graded work.)
I recently told my children about Judith Newman’s June article in the New York Times, in which she describes herself and other parents trying to resist doing their children’s homework, from making little grammatical changes in a junior high paper to staying up until all hours working on a child’s diorama. My first grader was horrified. “But if the kids don’t do their homework, then they will get to college and they won’t know how to do anything!”
Indeed, there is that. I am personally familiar with a mother who still made haircut appointments for her 20-something college-graduate son, and with another mother who mailed her daughter (heavy!) rolls of laundry quarters in graduate school, even though the young woman had a car and plenty of time to drive to a bank.
Sweet? Loving? Perhaps. But not helpful to a young person’s independent development. When I draw a hard line – and I do, after the first couple weeks of school – on not bringing forgotten lunches to school, I’m not trying to be mean or punitive. The kids have money loaded on their student IDs, and they can buy whatever is for hot lunch that day. For my picky eaters, this is not an attractive option. But they know I am not saying “You are bad. You should remember your lunch or I’ll punish you with something you don’t like.” Instead, I’m saying, “You are in charge of remembering your lunch. I know you will try to remember because you like to eat what you brought from home. Sometimes we all forget things. If you forget your lunch, you will make do with the consequences. And you will be okay because you can roll with life’s bumps.”
I admit that I have sometimes even tried to add a bump or two. Last year, when my second-grader was forgetting to return his homework to school from time to time, I reassured his teacher, “Don’t hesitate to mark him down for missed homework.” I know that meeting real world expectations is not only a valuable life skill, but also often a more powerful motivator than just what Dear Old Mom wants him to do.
So what did we do about checking and signing the second-grade homework? I told my son’s teacher that he wanted to do his homework totally independently, and that I wanted to encourage this sense of responsibility, and asked if we could try it for a while.
She graciously agreed, and so for the rest of the year I yielded homework to my son. There were far more items with red ink than there would have been if I’d had a heavier hand, but I’m banking on a lighter touch and a little failure leading to a more resilient, capable child — and adult.
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