Homework: The Parental Challenge

Many parents feel extremely challenged by their children's disinterest in and / or adamant refusal to do homework. Having been told by their children's teachers how vital a role they play in their children's success in school, they feel responsible for making their child attend to their homework. Using a variety of techniques, which usually include badgering, threatening, nagging, pleading, demanding, and yelling, among others, they succeed only at alienating their child and inadvertently pushing their child further down the road of rebellion. But what's a parent to do? While we're told to be actively interested, we are not necessarily told how to communicate that interest. Instead of presenting ourselves as helpful, supportive and understanding, we come across as dictators who have no real understanding of our children or their feelings. In other words, we put the homework above our child in importance. Our children wind up feeling misunderstood and even rebellious. So how do we put our child first, yet still get the homework done?

First, maximize your child's chances of success:

* Create time and space for your child to work. Be present if your child wishes you to be.

* Do not correct the homework. That's the teacher's job. If you correct your child, he may become so obsessed with "getting it right" that he might freeze and not be able to complete it at all.

* If your child asks for specific help, try offering to "look it up" with your child in a dictionary, encyclopedia, text, etc. Don't offer specific answers.

* Set up a "work first, play later" routine. While it's probably logistically better if homework follows playing on the schoolyard or having a playdate, once you get home it should come before TV, dinner, telephone time, etc. In this way, you can gently remind the procrastinating child that "When you've done your homework, then you can watch TV."

But what happens when these few things aren't enough? What happens when your child still resists homework and you find yourself frustrated and maybe even angry?

Remember that the most important role you have as a parent is that of listener and empathizer. Many parents side-step addressing their child's feelings about homework for fear that it will either make things worse or not get the job done. But while the skills of listening and empathy may not seem to get you anywhere (or at least not quickly) they are by far the fastest and most direct route to helping your child succeed.

Let me give you a true example of how this works. One parent I know made it a practice to sit with her daughter while doing her homework. One afternoon, the child began to whine "I don't understand this, I can't do it."

"What don't you understand?" said her mother.

"I just don't know what I'm supposed to do." Patiently, the mother tried to explain the directions, but as she did so, her daughter became more and more irritable, "I just don't understand! I hate homework! I hate school" she shouted. Mom began to feel hopeless and exasperated. To her credit, however, she kept a clear head, and remembering that her primary role was that of listener, she tried to think what her daughter might be feeling. Maybe frustrated, maybe overwhelmed, maybe nervous about getting the right answer. All of these were possibilities.

Mom took a deep breath and said "I guess it feels pretty overwhelming."

"I don't understand," her daughter burst into tears.

"It can be pretty tough, especially when the directions don't seem clear," Mom responded.

Her daughter continued to cry, "I don't understand what the teacher wants."

"Mm, yeah. I can tell you want to do the assignment well, and it's frustrating when you don't understand the directions and aren't sure exactly what the teacher is asking. I really would like to help, if I can. Is there anything I can do?"

"No," her daughter sobbed, "nothing will help."

"You know, I can think of a couple of things, but I don't know if they'll help. Would you like to hear them?"

"Okay," her daughter sniffed.

"Well, one thing is we could do is call one of your friends..."


"Okay, guess not. How about this? What about re-writing the directions to show the teacher what your interpretation is, then answer based on that. Then your teacher will know you tried, and if you're wrong, I'm sure she'll explain the directions and give you another chance." Again, her daughter responded negatively. Mom then made a few more suggestions, each of which was met with the response of "no". Mom then said, "Boy, this is a hard one. I'm going to take a break to think a little more. How about if you think too, and I'm sure we can come up with something. We're both smart people."

Even though Mom was getting "shot down" at every suggestion, she didn't give in to her urge, which was to throw up her hands in disgust and walk away. What she did, however, was to suggest a short break to "think some more". Sometimes parent and child wind up in a power struggle, even if the parent is utilizing all the appropriate communication techniques. When this happens it's best to "take the sail out of the wind" as Mom did and suggest a little break. Mom also added encouragement ("I'm sure we can come up with something. We're both smart people.") When Mom returned in a few minutes, she asked "So, did you give it some more thought?"

"I just want to skip the whole thing," her daughter replied grumpily. "I just won't do it at all."

"Well," said Mom, "That's an idea. How do you think you'll feel about going to school tomorrow, though, if you don't have your homework?"

"Nervous. I hate school," snapped her daughter.

"It's hard, honey. I know how you feel. Sometimes you just feel so, I don't know, stuck, I guess. I wish I could help, I really do. I just don't know how. Do you have any suggestions as to how I can help?"

Her daughter sighed, "Just stay here. I guess I'll do it the way I think it should be done and hope it's right."

"Okay," said Mom, "I think that sounds good. And I'll be happy to stay with you."

Mom did a good job here. She didn't let her feelings of frustration interfere with her primary task, which was supporting her daughter. She didn't take over, either, nor did she become dictatorial. Both mother and daughter won in this exchange, and the homework got done to boot. Let's break it down so you can have the same success:

* Make a guess about what your child is feeling. (Overwhelmed, anxious, frustrated)

* Hesitantly put those feelings into context for the child. (I guess it feels...)

* Pause to think if you need to. Remember what it feels like to be a child.

* Ask if you can help. ("Is there anything I can do?")

* Make a few suggestions.

* Accept your child's answers of "no".

* If a power struggle begins, "take the sail out of the wind," and be encouraging.

* If your child suggests not doing the homework, ask how she'd feel about the consequences of that.

* Continue to restate your willingness to help.

* Allow your child to make the final decision, even if you don't agree with it. Sometimes children are so discouraged that parents need to seek the help of the teacher at a later time.