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Joyful Musings--a weekly blog

Joyful Parenting Coaching is focused on clarity, consistency, connection, being an effective parent, finding balance as a parent, and above all being a confident and joyous parent. 

Taming the Homework Monster

Elisabeth Stitt

How much homework is enough?  

If it were up to me, schools would have a no homework policy.  Hear me out for a moment.  With twenty-five years of being a public school teacher, I--of all people--ought to be behind homework 100%.  Well, I’m not.  Actually, I feel it is detrimental to learning, to students and to families.  But before I talk about that, let me offer the counter model.

My daughter went to an independent, child-centered school starting in nursery.  The first homework my child was asked to do was in 4th grade.  I knew she was working on a report about rats because over break we had gone to the library. In February, she arrived midweek from her dad’s house with a piece of paper on which the teacher had written “SPLAT goals (optional).”  (SPLAT was what they called the research paper.)  Below that were three blank lines.  On these lines my daughter had written three tasks.  She asked me for help with the first task right away, knowing that we had a ski trip planned.  I helped her and then asked if she needed help with the other two.  No.  She thought she could manage those on her own.  Sunday night, with a wave of maternal guilt, I mentioned that “we” hadn’t gotten the other two items done.  I did them in the car driving to the mountains, she replied.  Having gotten to choose which three tasks she was going to do over the long weekend, she did them with no monitoring. 

During these same months, the fourth graders at my public school were writing their California mission reports.  Before assigning the paper, the teacher had done the work of providing deadlines and chunking the assignment into bite sized pieces.  The children had no choice in their topic and no responsibility for figuring out how to approach the paper.  Their parents, armed with a calendar of what was due when, were hovering over their students—reminding, cajoling, threatening, pushing, prodding them to do the work.  And when the children were slow or recalcitrant, there were some parents who did the work for their children rather than have it appear that the children had failed.  Other parents pushed through and made their children do the work at the cost of late night and tears. 

The skeptic is going to ask about the efficacy of each approach.  I have to admit that there were years when I held my breath wondering how my child was going to do in high school.  I could see that she was producing around 1/3 of the academic work her public school peers were doing.  Well, the proof is in the pudding:  The transition to high school was smooth.  My daughter knew how to plan her studies and how to use adults as resources.  Having done maybe two hours of homework a week through 8th grade, she was not burnt out but was excited about the chance to learn a broader range of subjects. 

I know.  Most of us do not have such a forward thinking school available to us.  We are in schools that are driven by fear of test scores.  Still, the evidence is piling up that even in high school the value of homework falls off after 90 minutes to 2 hours and, in fact, after that doing homework can become detrimental (http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/march/too-much-homework-031014.html).  So, as a teacher and a parent, what is my recommendation?  Do some research. Figure out what is in the best interest of your child’s health and wellbeing and make a plan.  Then stick to it.  The old rule of thumb of 10 minutes/grade is not a bad place to start.  Have the plan include what you will do instead of homework.  Family game night? Walks after dinner? Working on a project like building a model or making a quilt?  Communicate your values to the school’s teachers and principal.  Explain to your child the reason for your decision and emphasize that in this family we want to learn to lead balanced lives.  You may have to support your child through the reaction of others at school, but all along you will be demonstrating your celebration of your child’s whole being.  If you are feeling stressed out by your child’s homework, it is a sure sign it is time to take control and tame the homework monster.