The hat project (By Cara Paiuk)

My son returned home from kindergarten one day with a message from his teacher to read a note she sent home. I braced myself for bad news. Instead, I was flabbergasted.

The note advised us of an event next week to commemorate the first 100 days of school and assigned us homework. To punctuate the urgency of this assignment, it was reinforced through a follow-up email. The assignment? To wear a hat that day decorated with 100 objects of our choice. I consulted with a friend of mine who is a highly experienced and respected teacher, and she assured me that there are real educational benefits to these types of activities to learn about the number 100. However, she also struggled to see how this was an appropriate assignment. It’s not even a good use of a hat. To be clear, I don’t discount the value of celebrating our children’s milestones and achievements. Pats on the back are crucial for building their self-confidence while also vicariously acknowledging their teachers’ success. But I cannot ignore the wild disconnect here between the homework and its supposed purpose.

I could think of a 100 alternatives that would be better than attaching stuff to a hat: activities with more symbolism, educational value, and fun. A simple web search also reveals an abundance of ideas. Here is just a small sample of alternatives that I personally find a more meaningful use of my time: write the number “100” with objects; each child brings something small to form a quilt together; decorate a journal of class work from every day up to 100, noting the progress along the way.

I don’t want to double guess every homework assignment throughout my child’s education; I am a parent, not a professional educator. But hanging 100 items off a hat seems particularly absurd because of its potential to be especially time-consuming, expensive and frustrating, while limiting creativity. I’ve already made my distaste for homework in kindergarten well known because it is actually homework for parents, not teachers. This would be Exhibit A in my case against it. The patience and tools required for this assignment are not suitable for 5-year-olds, and the end result is going to be on public display. It has all the combustible ingredients to make parents feel pressured, guilty and competitive. This is not how I wanted to celebrate my son’s 100th day of school.

Yet if I weren’t to comply, my son would conspicuously stand out. My 5-year-old son lacks the maturity to deal with the ostracism he might experience. Maybe I do, too.

So I buckled. I gave up the chance to frolic outdoors on an unusually mild Sunday afternoon to visit a craft store to find a solution to this hat problem. I spent more time and money in there than I had anticipated, and trying to attach 100 googly eyes to a hat was even more frustrating than I had imagined. I asked my husband to help, and I took a video of him quitting in disgust. This was not a fun family activity. In the end, I think he came up with the best solution: to just keep him home from school. I wish I had thought of that before decorating the damn hat!

Of course, as much as I might fantasize about it, I would never keep my child home from school over a hat. There are going to be even bigger challenges ahead, and I can’t model behavior that teaches my child to run away from his problems. I remember begging my mom to stay home from school when I didn’t want to face a test or a pep rally or the fact that I didn’t do a piece of homework. I think she did the right thing insisting I go to school, and I hope I did the right thing by making the hat.

Cara Paiuk is a photographer and freelance writer. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children. You can follower her @carapaiuk.

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