Homework: Achieving Equilibrium in the School-Parent-Child Triangle

I'm often asked whether I believe that children today have too much homework. My answer is "yes." Having said that, however, I think that most schools who give too much homework are finding themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Elementary schools, to prepare children for the homework demands of middle school, must give more and more homework as the children advance through the grades. Likewise, middle schools, to prepare kids for the challenges of high school, must do the same. And high schools, challenged by parents to get their children into good universities, engage in similar practices.

So what's a parent to do? Clearly, one thing concerned parents can do is involve themselves with the policy-makers to change this situation for all children. Meanwhile, change takes time, and I believe that for the amount of time we're stuck with this situation, we must take advantage of the opportunity it offers us and our kids. Homework, when all is said and done, can be an opportunity to teach our children about life, and to help them develop the traits and qualities that will allow them to thrive as adults.

Taking advantage of this opportunity means not tipping the school - parent - child triangle. Envision an upside down triangle, with "parent" at the upper left corner and "school" at the upper right corner. At the bottom corner of the triangle, envision the "child." This configuration is healthy, because it represents the idea that the parent and school are the team that has the responsibility of molding the child into the adult he or she will eventually become.

Sometimes, however, the triangle gets "tipped" and different configurations appear that are unhealthy for the child in different ways. For example, when the parent is at the bottom of the triangle, and the child and school are at the top, then the child is probably not receiving the kind of support from the parent that studies tell us help children succeed in school and life. Conversely, when the school is at the bottom, perhaps because the parent undermines the school to the child, then the child learns to scoff both at authority and at the amount of work he's being given to do - a situation that ultimately will not serve him well in the workplace or in life.

Keeping this triangle in its proper position means that when you believe your child has too much homework, you bring that concern to the school, not the child. Children must receive consistent messages from parent and school, and disagreements between the two should be handled without dragging the child into the situation.

This does not mean, however, that we shouldn't empathize when our children claim that the amount of work is "unfair" or that they feel overwhelmed, or scared about an upcoming exam or paper. On the contrary, supporting our children's feelings is a daily goal of good parenting. Saying to your child that it does feel unfair, that you hear how overwhelmed she is, or that many people find themselves anxious before an exam are all ways in which you can support your child without tipping the triangle.

What we want to be careful not to do, however, is overreact to the amount of homework our children are given. In Wendy Mogel's wonderful book "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee," she explains that "parents must treat homework as an expected and unalarming part of life. In this way, we discourage (children) from turning small difficulties into big dramas. We help children become calmer and more resilient by staying calm ourselves."

In struggling with the "unfairness" of homework and with their feelings about it, children learn something about life itself. Dr. Mogel says, "Children need to develop a tolerance for the inevitable unfairness and messiness of life, an enterprise in which most of us "feel bad" at least some portion of every day." This does not mean that we should resort to the old "Life's unfair, deal with it," slogan many of us heard from our own parents, but it does mean that when we lovingly encourage our children to work steadfastly during unfair situations, we help them learn to endure the realities of life.

Another common mistake parents make is trying to save their children from making poor choices: handing in an incomplete assignment, rushing through writing a paper so they can have more time in front of the television, making careless mistakes in their math assignment. Wendy Mogels states that "by letting our children make some reckless or thoughtless choices, we teach them how to withstand the bumps and knocks of life." When children come face to face with the consequences that the school imposes for these poor choices, they learn far more than when their parents catch the poor choices ahead of time and force the child to correct them.

Sometimes parents will ask the relevant questions: "What if the school doesn't impose any consequences?" or "What if my child doesn't care about the consequences the school imposes?" If this is the case, it's time to remember the "triangle." Approaching the school as a fellow team member and brainstorming how the two of you can best help your child develop a sense of responsibility will do more for your child than trying to be your child's "at home teacher." Remember that while we strive to guide our children, it's the school's job to teach and our job to support the school in that teaching.

Finally, supporting the school and your child means creating an at-home environment that's conducive to homework and learning. This means creating time and space for your child to do his homework, and being present if he wishes you to be - not so that you can "help him", but so that you can support his feelings if necessary. Remember not to give specific answers to his questions, rather offer to support him in looking up the answers if necessary - in dictionaries, encyclopedias, on-line, etc. Lastly, do not correct your child's work - that's the teacher's job and if you take it over you risk tipping the triangle.