Back to School: The Horrors of Homework

Back to school advice for parents on homework

Homework didn’t make our parents’ lives miserable. Why not? Well, for one thing, we had less of it than children in affluent districts and most private schools do now (“too much homework” is far from a nation-wide problem). We had fewer parent-encouraged outside activities, and spent more of our time around the house anyway, meaning our parents didn’t have to concern themselves about whether homework could get done in the limited space between violin, soccer and Kumon (oh, the irony). Homework was more of a nuisance than a family-destroying instrument of doom. (Oops, did I say that out loud? I meant necessary and educational evil, of course.) And given that there’s at least a debate of how useful the stuff is (again, especially in lower grades), the knowledge that all those hours I’ve spent facilitating it, supervising it and listening to children complain about it might have been wasted definitely burns.

But chances are, your kids have homework. I know mine do. So I’ve collected my favorite resources for getting Homework season off to a good start, including a 3 Tips in 3 Minutes video from the new Studio KJ (watch here).

I’m assuming you subscribe to the theory that it’s your child’s homework, not yours. That means it’s important to be clear on the goal with homework—don’t think “getting it done well,” think “becoming capable of getting it done well without help.” That can be tough. It’s easier to help get it done (especially if your child is begging for help, or “help”) than it is to say “I’m sure you’ve got this.”

Now’s the time to set the stage for the year. If you’ve sat next to your child and helped the homework happen in the past, lay it out: “You’re in second grade now—you sit down, and I’ll be nearby if you need help.” Your goal—send a message of expectation and belief in your child’s competence and ability. If you’re wondering how to pull that off, check out How to Help With Homework Without Hovering. And heed this advice, from Julie Lythcott Haines: “Take an interest,” she said, when they ask for help. “You can help them interpret instructions, you can help them procure materials, but when they’re turning to you and saying, ‘I can’t, I don’t know,’ you have to say, ‘Yes you can. This is the homework assigned, your teacher thinks you can do it, and I do too.’” (‘Impossible’ Homework Assignment? Let Your Child Do It)

Wondering why? Here are some words of wisdom from Jessica Lahey after wandering through a classroom full of parent-enabled projects: “our children know the real score,” she said. They know their parents didn’t think whatever they could do on their own was good enough. “They also know when accolades for that awe-inspiring, award-winning project are not theirs to claim, and victory is hollow.”

And if you’re worried about what teachers think when the fourth grade homework shows unmistakable signs of being the work of a fourth grader, maybe these words, from a librarian about a “train wreck” of a diorama, will help:

“I wanted to tell you how much I loved seeing something actually made by children,” said Mimi, in her sweet Kentucky-accented voice.

My reply: “Um thanks? I guess. I just let them do their thing and tried to bite my tongue a lot. It was super hard to stay out of it.”

“What a great mom you are!” Madam Librarian exclaimed.

What if that first night of math homework without your help takes your 6th grader 3 hours? Sit tight. What took 3 hours the first time might take 2 next week and half an hour the week after that. Two things need to happen—your child has to get back into the homework groove and brush up her skills (and maybe accept that even if it takes 3 hours, you’re not going to sit down and take over) and the teacher needs to assess what’s going on with her students. Let the homework ride for at least a few weeks before you take action.

If you think a conversation with the teacher is in order, go for it—but go easy. Try to figure out, together if the problem is with the load, or with your child. Wondering how to phrase it? Check out 8 Sentence Starters to Use When Talking to Teachers (good for emailing, too). Be open to solutions like extra help from the teacher after school (we should all be so lucky), tutors or a little online help.

If the load really is a problem, speak up. It’s likely you’re speaking for parents who may not want to say anything, and it does matter.  That may not be an easy conversation—find some tips on difficult parent-teacher conversations here.

Here’s hoping that the homework load settles down for you—and a few words of hope, from the parent of (now) two fifth graders, a 7th grader and a high school sophomore. It gets worse—and it gets better. My kids know the drill about homework. They know it’s their problem, they know, in theory, not to put it off, to spread out long projects, too do it right the first time. And I’ve seen enough now to know that some will blow it over and over before they start getting it right, and others just “get it” pretty much right away.

They grow. They change. They evolve. I’ve always had a tendency to assume that whatever happens today will keep happening again and again—he’ll “never” get organized; she’ll “never” be able to do that reading journal. That’s not the way it works. They’re supposed to be learning how to do this stuff—and that doesn’t just mean algebra and the ABCs. They’re learning how to sit down, how to do hard stuff, how to do something they don’t want to do, to plan, to think, to try again.

And, yeah, they learn some of that from homework. I still don’t have to like it.

If you’ve got a homework saga, a strategy arrived at after much trial-and-error or some other way you’ve integrated homework into a happy family life, I’d love to hear from you. I’m writing my homework chapter now, and looking for stories. Email me at

Want more? I’ve pulled some fun reads about school and homework from the Motherlode and Well Family archives.

Parents of high schoolers, this is a must-read. Would your kids say the pressure of homework comes from you? Homework’s Emotional Toll on Students and Families

Where to Turn When the School Wants to Have Your Child ‘Tested’  A great round up of resources to consider if you get that worrying call–I’ve never seen this info anywhere else.

Fourth-Grade Twins, One With Homework, One Without This is just fun to read, and encouraging. The irony—the kid who loves homework in a class with none, and other…
Why You Shouldn’t Pay Children for Grades Ok, my dad totally paid me for grades—but then, I was already motivated. If you’re thinking the cash will supply the motivation, read this first.