The One Thing You Can Do When the Homework Is Killing You All

We’ve all been there. Your child is frustrated, and insisting the teacher never showed her how to graph the results of the word problem. The 210 page reading assignment had him up half the night; the “measure four rooms in your house” question took the combined efforts of the whole family to complete and taught your kid nothing, and seriously, who does the second grade teacher think is really doing the online research on lemurs? You’re annoyed, you’re confused, everyone is up way past bedtime and one thing is for sure: this is not your fault. You know who’s to blame! It’s—


Here’s the one thing you really need to do at this moment, for your child’s sake and your own: Hush.

Whatever you’re about to do next, don’t. Don’t shoot off an impulsive email, do a little venting on social media or tell your child exactly what you think of this homework and its source. Instead, sit on your hands, zip your lips, step into your bathroom, lock the door and run the shower while you take as many deep breaths as necessary. Do nothing at all until you’ve remembered the three cardinal rules of homework:

  1. It’s not yours.
  2. What kids learn from homework is rarely on the worksheet.
  3. You don’t want to make tonight’s homework better. You want to make ALL the homework better.

Spouting off right now gains you nothing, and might make things worse. Teachers I’ve interviewed assure me that your adorable first grader will stroll into the classroom tomorrow, gaze at them with round eyes, and say “my daddy told me your homework was stupid and I shouldn’t have to do it.” I’ve mouthed off on Faceback about a big project and received a gratifying chorus of “likes”— and a polite email from my children’s teacher asking that I reach out to her directly if I’m concerned about my kids’ ability to get the work done. You don’t want that. Trust me.

But if you can’t rant, what should you do? Making all the homework better requires that you take an unemotional look at what’s really going on before you take action. Is this a problem with one assignment? If that’s the case, don’t get sucked into the drama. Let it stay undone, let your child get frustrated, endure the tantrum of the perfectionist who can’t remember exactly what’s been asked and has put things off until it is too late to call anyone and sort it out. It’s not your homework, and both you and your child should know it.

Does it seem like this one assignment really is unreasonable? Do some fact-checking before you raise the roof. It’s just possible that the reading assignment was given last week, not last night, or that the project was discussed in the first week of class—which your child has conveniently left out of the conversation as she frantically makes her procrastination your problem. More simply, sometimes kids just make mistakes. More than once, a child in our family has done all the numbered problems in a section of the math book when “only the evens” were assigned. See rule number two: there are lessons to be learned here, and they’re not in the book.

Most of the time, when homework goes wrong, the best way towards making it better overall isn’t making it better right this minute. When you’re ready to start talking, try this, to your child: “your teacher thinks you can do this. I think you can do it. Now, get to it.” If things don’t go well, let your child be the first one to let the teacher know—tomorrow. Remember, generations of parents have lacked the ability to instantly email an excuse or explanation on their child’s behalf. Start old school. Give your child, even a young child, a chance to talk to an adult about something that concerns her, and see what happens.

But what if that fails, or if your concerns go beyond one night’s assignment to the workload, the approach, or your child’s repeated struggles? Then you will be reaching out to the teacher—but with thought and appreciation and an expectation that you share an interest in making things work. Start by describing what you’ve observed—the word problems take a lot of time, the timed math practice makes your child anxious, your child is spending three hours a night on the reading—and ask if you can get together to discuss. Once you’re there, start by listening. You may be surprised by how an experienced professional can help with your child’s approach, or by the flexibility he demonstrates.

Or you may not. If nothing changes, you’ll have to decide if your child will be living with less than ideal for a school year, or if you’re going to continue to push for change. (Making that choice, and following up, could be the subject of a whole short book, and I wrote one, accidentally, while drafting the homework chapter of How to Be a Happier Parent. It’s all yours. Download Is It the Homework, or Is It Your Kid? free from my website. You’ll have to sign in with your email, but you’re already subscribed—I won’t email you twice).

No matter what happens, when you respond thoughtfully instead of reacting impulsively, things tend to turn out better. Take heart—you’ve already taken Algebra. This is going to turn out okay.

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