When Homework Engulfs the Whole House


Drafted at some point during last night’s drama. Or possibly this morning’s. I’m not sure who it’s directed at.


Last year, amidst great emotional difficulty, my younger daughter learned to divide with a remainder.

Let me just be clear on how hard this was, how utterly wrong, how singularly contrary to every idea she had ever formed about math. Math was performed with whole numbers. Math is finding a single right answer. If the two numbers with which you have been presented do not come together in the operation you have been instructed to perform and produce an answer in the form of one of the numbers with which you generally do math, then you must be wrong and you need to erase everything—possibly the entire paper—and start again.

Remainders did not fit that model. They were not tidy. They did not allow you to feel secure in your answer. They caused stress and misery, like unloved clutter on a countertop.

But, after many months of struggle, she accepted remainders. (In a similar process, it took years—actual years—to accept subtraction after she learned addition. That was simply not what you did with those symbols. You added. Period. Consistency is her watchword.)

Sadly, this year brought with it fractions. If Suzi has 10 apples and three friends and they all want to share the apples equally, how many apples does each get? Not 2 with a remainder of 2 apples in the bowl. Nope. 2 1/2 apples.

That may make sense if you’re eating actual apples, but not on a page of math homework, my friend. That’s just WRONG. Bitterly, horribly, painfully wrong. Because it is crystal clear to anyone who knows how to divide with a remainder that the answer is 2 with a remainder of two. She is wiling to add fractions, in a pinch. Even subtract them. I do know actually know if she has multiplied them; if she has, it occurred without incident. But mess with her division, and you have messed with the wrong girl.

It feels as if this drama has been going on for months, but it’s really only been a little over a week, and it goes like this. At first, she’d take her page of homework, work her way through the word problems (which are already really hard for her, as her gut instinct—understandable, given her existing learning challenges—is still to skip all the pesky words, pile up all the numeric symbols and add them to produce an answer) using division with remainders, then hit a road block in one of the words and ask for help. The person she asked, whether it was a parent or a sibling, would explain the word, help with any reading challenges the problem presented, then glance at the other problems, as you do, and say, gently or not depending on individual temperament: Those are wrong. They’re supposed to be fractions. Fine then, she would say, I need help.

I won’t go into detail on the combined efforts of myself and three siblings to explain the fractions–the idea that the number of people who would eat the apples went on the bottom, and the number of apples being eaten, or divided, went on the top and became a fraction. I should probably mention that it all caused flashbacks regarding last year’s initial introduction of fractions in the first place, the endless slicing of apples and halving of cookies and the turning of every arrival of pizza in a box into an unwanted math lesson. This child actually likes the number part of math—it’s so clear and tidy and there are actual right answers —but she was and is totally fraction resistant, probably because fractions are a concept that involves too many words. We’d start talking, and by the time we’d get to “you’re dividing by the number of kids” her eyes had glazed over and we could tell she’d thrown up the mental wall. No kids, please, in math. Just the numbers. Can we not have just the numbers?

Note, too, that if you hold the person explaining the problem there long enough, and refuse to understand firmly enough, the person will eventually be forced, through sheer attrition, to reduce the problem to just the numbers for you. Because that’s the only way to explain. But by the tenth or fifteenth time you’ve “helped” in this way, even if you’re only 10, you eventually notice that you’re being manipulated and refuse to play. Because you’ve explained it. So has everyone else in the house. Enough times that anyone who can understand it should understand it. And we all know she can understand it. Almost certainly already does understand it, and could probably do it easily, as the math part is designedly easy, if she should just stop screaming at the person trying to help that she does not understand, never will understand, cannot do it this way and HAS to have a remainder. We’ve been down this road before. (And even the full on learning disability testing road–that’s all covered. This is not that problem.)

Eventually my husband took over with some success, because he would explain the problem, then write out three identical problems and stand over her and insist that she do them the way they’d done the first. He would write out the steps. He would point her back to the original problem and say, just change the numbers and do this. Now do it again. And again. And again. He outlasted her, bless him, and faced with the prospect of doing three times as much homework, she sort of accepted the fractions, and kind of absorbed a little of it. So now we had proof—she theoretically could get through the homework herself.

But–and here we finally get to the problem–she doesn’t want to. So every night, when she opens her math homework, the drama begins. “I need help. I can’t do this.” The volume increases as she works her way through everyone in the house other than her father. No one will help her, and this is an outrage. She needs help, after all. What kind of family does not help a child who needs help with her homework? And she does not want Daddy’s help, and yeah, we all know why.

We recite what the school has told us to say, which is that if she doesn’t understand it, she can ask her teacher tomorrow. BUT SHE HAS TO DO HER HOMEWORK. Remember, this is a tidy child. Who, it should be said, wants to do her homework because it really bothers her to leave it undone. And who, it should also be said, does not like to lose these battles of will, over getting help, and whether it has to be done tonight. And the whole thing cascades, as it has done every fall for the past four years, until all reason is lost. And because she started with her math, now she’s too upset to do any other homework without asking for help, and then yelling at the helper because the helper will not let her produce, instead of the history we are willing to help with, the dreaded page of fraction word problems.

It does not take long for this process to reduce the whole house to misery. There is stomping. There is grunting. There is this fun process in which every pencil mark on the page is punctuated by a sort of a shrieked “uh” that is impossible to reproduce on the page. We can stop it, with dire threats, but this is a child who must be threatened only very carefully, because about fifty percent of the time she’ll make you follow through. And then we’ve only stopped the sounds. The emotional fury persists, and does not abate, and lasts through a sulky bedtime. It’s usually gone in the morning, until, after school, the whole process starts again.

I know we are not the only family for whom homework isn’t a learning battle, but an emotional one. What do you do when the homework is draining the life out of your house? Tell me your stories, please. Inspire me with successes and encourage me with failures. Help!




18 Responses to “When Homework Engulfs the Whole House”

  1. KJ says:

    Someone just told me it’s hard to comment here–but I’m not seeing why!

  2. Hi KJ – my tactic is to turn to kindly neighborhood teenagers. It gives them a chance to be responsible and they bring a complete calm to homework. They also serve as good role models. My son likes math but didn’t like to show his work. The teenager was able to explain in “kid” terms why it was important. It would have never occurred to me to explain it that way. I pay them (not a lot) and see the arrangement as a win all around.

  3. andrea says:

    Ugh, the worst is a kid asking for help but then freaking out when you offer it. No advice other than … stay calm! Easier said than done, tho

  4. jennym says:

    This was my daughter for a few years–when she was in grade 4/5/6. She would ask for help with math, but wouldn’t even try to understand the explanation. She just wanted the answer to be crystal clear immediately. And so the person explaining would be, according to her, dumb, stupid, idiotic, etc. The insults would fly and the person explaining would get upset because they’re just trying to help, and it escalated into an evening of misery for all, including the kid brother who had to listen to her outrage. What seemed to help was stepping away when the hysteria began, but doing so calmly. I’d say something like, “I know you’re frustrated, and I’m glad to help but I can’t when you yell at me. Let me know when we can work together calmly.” Then eventually, after more insults and yelling, she would be ready to try again. Sometimes it took 3 or 4 times (or more!) of me walking away, but I made sure she knew I would be back once the drama stopped. And then when the homework finally got done, I’d make sure she knew she had it in her to do it, she just had to TRY, dammit. She’s now in grade 7 and maybe it’s partly maturity, but it’s much, much better.

  5. Mary Beth Holcomb says:

    This literally made me feel sick, recalling my daughter’s 7th grade year, and how utterly miserable it was for ALL of us (she’s the 2nd of 4 kids). Same deal, and the anxiety began to ooze into every aspect of her (and by default, our) life. Every night a drawn-out drama, at the expense of our other kids’ needs and our own sanity. Obviously, I know nothing about your child, and I’m not trying to make a mountain out of a molehill, but this is all SO familiar – the tidiness, the outright refusal to understand, the parental dread about what the looming evening will bring – it makes me wonder about a more generalized anxiety “disorder” (I know, I know, don’t roll your eyes; I’m generally not prone to that kind of leap). For our girl, it was the lack of control; if she couldn’t make it work perfectly, she could NOT handle it, and she would give up in the most dramatic, stubborn, maddening fashion. We did this in varying forms from 4th-7th grade, until it became too overwhelming to handle. Again, not saying this is your “problem,” but for our daughter, therapy for anxiety and honestly, finally, at 14, the lowest dose of Zoloft changed our lives. I can not overemphasize how resistant I was, and how wrong I was. She is now in 11th grade, perfectly happy, healthy, and confident in school. It just gave her the ability to let go a little and be okay with uncertain and new, something she described as feeling like “a layer just peeled off.” One more thing, in terms of learning styles – I don’t know if this is available in your school, but she had an 8th grade math class that worked wonderfully for her learning style – a “flipped” classroom approach, where the teachers discussed problems with kids as they worked them during class time, and the lectures were reserved for home, in the the form of videos. So when you’re stuck, you’re on class time, with someone who’s a pro, who can immediately alleviate the stress by explaining. Maybe you could work out some sort of jerry-rigged version of this w/her teacher? Anyway, sorry for the novel, but believe me, you are not alone in this, it is grueling, and it definitely won’t last forever! Good luck!

  6. mim says:

    great blog post, but er, you might wanna edit that very first example. it’s not 3 friends, it should be 4… Right? (unless I need some very remedial math myself!)

  7. wendy says:

    Sounds very similar to my younger daughter- she’s a perfectionist and becomes panicked when she doesn’t know how to do the math (every night). She argues with me over actual math facts: “40 plus 19 DOES TOO EQUAL 70! IT DOES!” I go into another room until she calms down. Many, many nights I have told her to put it away and ask for help tomorrow; I get, “MY TEACHER SAID WE HAVE TO KNOW HOW TO DO IT! SHE WON’T HELP US!” (Untrue.) She is devastated these nights by homework, not by difficulty, but by her emotional state and unreasonable expectations of herself; she’s in second grade. Heaven knows what next year will bring… Good luck! 🙂

  8. JeF says:

    Does the teacher offer before school, after school, or at lunchtime help with homework? Have you spoken to the teacher about the difficulty? Explain the whole difficulty including how the child won’t not do the homework. Maybe the teacher can reinforce that it’s okay to not do the homework and that it’s better for the teacher to help with the issue.

    A good math teacher/tutor should have tricks to help her with the difficulty. You definitely need to see what she understands and what she doesn’t. New learning is built upon previous learning. A math teacher/tutor has multiple ways of assessing understanding and can often come up with new suggestions that the most patient parent has a difficult time coming up with… If tutor / teacher isn’t the answer, have you looked for videos online to help explain and walk her through things?

    As far as the order of the homework, you all may want to make an agreement (when she’s not upset) that math will be done after the other homework is complete. And then make sure she sticks to the order. Perhaps you could ask her to give you her Math HW so you can “work through it or find resources for it” before she does so you can help her better…. or something like that?

  9. Kimberley Moan says:

    Homework at our house escalates just as quickly. The drama happens as soon as I say I know how to do it. They don’t believe me. There’s no way I can help or be right. I find the more people are watching or trying to help, the worse it gets. So now we all walk away. When he decides we are no longer going to help, he accepts agency for the work. Then he seems more willing to ask for the help he might need. I have also met with him and his teachers to explain how I plan to do this at home. I tell them that if they can’t give him something he can do on his own, it isn’t going to get done. I have to save our family time too.

  10. KJ says:

    three friends plus her! four! (exactly the issue with one such word problem…)

  11. KJ says:

    I appreciate this so much We do consider all those other possibilities (there’s a novel in there for sure). It’s so helpful to hear other stories. And i do love the “flipped” model. It was funny, after I wrote this, she actually went to the teacher who can help her, who offers an after school session on Tuesday–which the night before had been part of what she was refusing to do, for complicated reasons. And that helps so much, because when we’re around the drama is different. But then–a real shock–she asked her dad for more problems when she came home! Sometimes i think I overreact to her emotions–because if I were making that kind of fuss, I’d be really upset, but it doesn’t seem to be much more than a show for her. Maybe it’s me…

  12. KJ says:

    Oh, man, this is so dead on. I think it may take 20 or 25 times of walking away….

  13. KJ says:

    I really like the ordering of homework agreement. That’s brilliant.

  14. alison hlady says:

    I have, for many years now, resented homework, and how that small pile of assignments (x3!), of which I have no control over, dictates every afternoon in my home, and has essentially tried to ruin my relationships with my children. Homework early in elementary school has not helped my children develop good habits – it has made them resentful of the extra hours of school they have when they get home. It should be banned until high school, when kids are actually developmentally prepared to do it on their own.

  15. You could try giving her an assigned time each evening when she will have you or your husband’s undivided attention for any homework help. If you are helping her 3-4 nights/week plus once on the weekends, a 30 minute session is reasonable. For example, from 7:30-8:00 pm on assigned nights, she has your undivided attention, and no one is allowed to interrupt. But, when it’s over, it’s over.

    Before beginning this arrangement, I would ask her to agree to some behavior conditions:
    She comes to “help time” armed with attempted problems and specific questions.
    She maintain a positive attitude – whining results in the termination of that evening’s help time.

    If her behavior is motivated by a genuine desire to do well in school, then the knowledge that you will be there at a certain time each night should help her to relax.
    If her behavior is motivated by a desire for attention, then, respectfully, I feel like you have been reinforcing that behavior by upsetting the entire family getting her homework finished.

    I’m a mom of four, a tutor, and a school librarian, and in my experience, I’ve learned that when we parents start caring so much about our kids’ school success that we repeatedly ruin our evenings, we have lost perspective and haven’t done our kids any favors. Perhaps the best solution is to send her to school with unfinished homework, and let her deal with it.

  16. JBZ says:

    Math homework has been a disaster for one of my kids for several years. He is now in 8th grade and I finally put down my foot and insisted on a math tutor. He was highly resistant – this option had been dangled for the two prior years of middle school but he always rejected it b/c he did not like the idea of needing and tutor and what [he thought] that said about his level of intellect. So every night we went through an emotional roller coaster of outbursts over math homework and, as I’m sure you can appreciate, the elevated level of emotion did absolutely nothing to facilitate the learning of the subject matter and did everything to undermine positive interactions between parent and child. So now there is a math tutor. He remains calm when she is here and is better able to process and learn without that level of emotion getting in the way. Best $70 I pay each week. The tutor is a math teacher in a neighboring school district so she knows exactly what she’s doing and I can step away.

  17. KJ says:

    I think the set time is a good idea. I’m also aware that you’re right–this child is our attention-seeker, but knowing that, when you have a child who will stop at nothing for attention, doesn’t always help when it’s not just attention she needs. It’s that tricky combining of an actual need for homework help with a desire for attention and a desire that someone else do the homework all tied into a feeling that if no one will help you with your homework, no one loves you that makes a devil of a combination!