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Homework: It’s What’s For Dinner

Homework

First grader C diligently doing her homework this week.

Well, the first month of school year 2013-2014 is now underway, meaning that our family is back on more of a schedule than we find it necessary to keep in the laid back summertime. With E in 10th grade and C in 1st this year, we all have to get up earlier to get kids awakened, C dressed, everyone fed, and then both C and E to their two different schools on time.

Soon, when the fall lacrosse season starts, we will be shuttling E to and from practices and games, and C’s Suzuki violin lessons have now resumed following a summer hiatus. Also, in C’s case, we have to time supper and anything else that we hope to accomplish in any given evening around our school night goal of having her in bed by 8 pm.

Oh yeah, and then there’s the nightly parental ball and chain known as homework.

Sigh.

Last night was the first one since C began school last week when she had homework to bring home. Her teacher wanted to give the kids a chance to settle in before beginning to assign nightly homework, which I appreciated. But now, the good times have begun.  Of course, C is only six years old, so her daily homework assignments aren’t terribly onerous, or at least they weren’t in kindergarten last year when she also had homework most nights. And E is a sophomore in high school, so at this stage, he’s pretty much 100% responsible for getting his work done (or not) each night.

However, while C and E are currently in stages where their nightly school assignments don’t dominate the entire family’s evenings, I also know  from years of experience parenting my three oldest through elementary and middle school that from about grades 2-7, homework far too often becomes The Monster That Ate Our Family Life.  Before I had school-age children, I just assumed that every night they would sit down and do a reasonable amount of homework each night, with little need for much assistance from a parent. However, what I discovered was that starting in about second or third grade, each of my three oldest needed significant parental involvement to plow thru what I found to be an unreasonable amount of take-home work.

Sometimes my children needed a parent to help because one of them didn’t fully understand the work to be done, while at other times (pretty frequently, actually), they were just plain tired from a long day at school and afterschool sports or lessons, and by the time they sat down to tackle homework at night, their attention, energy and ability were so shot that the only way they were going to get the work done was if one of their parents stayed nearby for the next 30-120 minutes and made sure that they did. The memories of cajoling, urging, encouraging and occasionally even threatening my children to finish their homework night after night will NOT be one of my favorite maternal reveries in my later years. It’s no fun at all for a tired parent to have to ride herd on a tired kid on many or even some nights, trying to get those damn worksheet pages finished.

And then, of course, there are the dreaded special projects: the science fair displays, the dioramas and the Towers of London made entirely of q-tips. These are the multi-evening homework assignments that I, and many other parents I have spoken to, dread the most. During the week running up to middle school science fair, NOTHING would get accomplished in our household after we all arrived home from work and school each day beyond toiling over the creation of the project report and three-dimensional poster board to go with it. I get a headache just thinking about it.

Nope, I am no fan of our traditional system of homework. I don’t think it serves students or families well, and I wish that the smart folks who oversee our educational system would come up with a different way to provide whatever it is we believe homework offers kids. But I still have two more children to parent through “the homework years,” and I know that the kind of change I am advocating is unlikely to be something that happens before they age out of the nightly imprisonment that eats up not only their evenings, but our whole family’s.

Lest you think that my views on homework are new, let me cut and paste below a column on the topic that I wrote back in 2003, and which was published in our local alternative weekly newspaper  exactly ten years ago this month. The title was, “Homework: It’s What’s For Dinner,” and re-reading it now, a decade later, I realize that I could, and would, write the exact same things today about why I don’t believe that the way we “do” homework in the U.S. really works for anybody.

 

HOMEWORK: It’s What’s For Dinner

I was eating lunch with a friend the other day when he asked me whether I was happy that my three elementary-age children will soon be returning to school for the fall semester. I think I surprised him when I said that I actually don’t look forward to the first day of school. I enjoy the more leisurely pace of summer schedules, and my kids do as well. But the primary reason I dread their imminent return to the classroom is homework.

I hate homework.

Homework has gotten a lot of press in recent years, as experts and parents have debated how much is too much and at what age children should begin doing it. But everyone seems to agree that in general, homework is a necessary and worthwhile part of the total academic experience for children. Everyone, that is, but me.

Actually, that’s not exactly true. There is a small but vocal minority of parents out there—many of them homeschoolers—who question the point and purpose of homework, but sometimes I do feel like the weirdest mama on the block when it comes to my opinions on this topic.

Several years ago I attended a parent meeting at my oldest son’s school in which all of us were asked to anonymously write down our ideas for school improvements on pieces of paper and then drop them in a hat. Then each suggestion was read aloud for discussion. When my idea—that homework be abolished—was read, everyone burst into hearty laughter. You would have thought I had suggested replacing teachers with chimps or something.

When the other parents stopped guffawing, I rather timidly raised my hand and explained that I hadn’t meant my suggestion as a joke. I explained that in my opinion, five to eight hours of schoolwork a day during school hours was plenty for kids under age 14 or so.

“After all,” I offered up, “We don’t bring work home from our jobs each and every night, do we?”

In fact, when we adults return from our offices and factories and stores each evening, we look forward to relaxing at home and leaving work at work. Few of us would be interested in any job in which we were expected to do one to three more hours of paperwork each night after dinner. Yet, that’s exactly what we expect of our kids.

When children attend school all day and work on homework all evening, it leaves little time for their own intellectual exploration. If, for example, something a child learns at school one day sounds interesting, she should have the chance to do some further reading, thinking, or talking about the topic at home that evening. But with a pile of homework to complete, that often isn’t possible. Homework takes away most of the only time each day when a child might choose to read or write or draw for pleasure, curled up on the couch or under a tree in the yard. It eats up the period at night when fantastical Lego creations might be assembled or living-room theater takes place.

Homework also cuts into important family time in an age when family members are already separated all day long by our post-industrial jobs and schools and schedules. As a working, single parent with three children, homework often devours whole evenings at our house, leaving no time for relaxed discussion or even shared chores like cooking or cleaning up the kitchen. My children, who are separated by age into different classrooms all day long, are left with little time to connect and play with their siblings due to the fact that homework carries that artificial distinction over into our home life on weekday evenings.

I don’t buy the argument that homework teaches kids responsibility. And even if it does, there have got to be better ways to impart lessons in follow-through and self-discipline. I’d rather raise a kid who loves to read or write for pleasure, help around the house, and debate interesting subjects with family than one who can complete five math worksheets in under 90 minutes.

I am aware that my minority views on this subject aren’t likely to resonate with my kids’ teachers this year any more than they have in years past, so I guess I had better get stocked up on the necessary homework supplies to get us all through the interminable weeknights that lay ahead: glue and blunt scissors for my kindergartener, pencils and paper for my third grader, and binders and blank CD-ROMS for my middle schooler. Oh yeah, and Tylenol and red wine for me.

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So what’s your take on homework? Are you happy with the way your kids’ schools handle the issue, or do you wish there were another system in place? Do you believe homework is necessary for kids to learn and succeed in school? How old are your kids and how much homework do they have each night? Is that more or less than you had at the same age? Let’s talk homework in the comments below.

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