Like many things, homework has become more complex and demanding than when we were kids. Expectations are higher—for students and for teachers—and parents have the additional challenges of controlling iPad/smartphone/TV time, juggling jam-packed sports schedules, and mastering a new curriculum, including those damn cube trains they use in kindergarten math now.
Despite studies suggesting that homework doesn’t even benefit grade-schoolers, it’s here to stay. The good news: You don’t need to be as involved as you might think. In fact, you shouldn’t be. “The purpose of homework is to help kids become independent learners,” says Cathy Vatterott, Ph.D., professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and founder of the educational site HomeworkLady.com. Does that mean you can stick them in their room and expect that they’ll pop out 30 minutes later with check-plus-plus work? Sadly, no. But there are simple tactics to make the process less painful for everyone involved.
The first step is to empower your kid by giving her a say in when, where, and how she completes assignments. “Ask if she has ideas for making homework more manageable,” suggests Parents advisor Deborah Stipek, Ph.D., dean of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. If not, offer suggestions. (“Would it be helpful to have a snack first?” or “Do you want to play in the backyard before you start?”) Have her write down the agreed-upon regimen, and post it as a reminder.
Keep in mind that you may have varying routines under one roof. “Each of my kids does homework in a different place,” says Sarah Holloway, a mother of four in Havelock, North Carolina. “My 9-year-old sits on the floor, my 16-year-old does it on her bed, and my other kids, ages 11 and 12, work at the dining-room table.” The experts I spoke with said the latter is a great option, since you can be nearby for support while still doing your own thing (scrubbing Sharpie off a 2-year-old, perhaps).
One thing Holloway’s kids share in common: They get no screen time until their assignments are done. “This policy sends the message, ‘First you do your work, then you can watch TV,’ ” says Stephanie Donaldson- Pressman, clinical director of the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology. Establish this rule at the beginning of the school year, especially if you’ve let things slide during the summer.
Homework lets teachers identify what students have absorbed in class, so don’t turn it into your assignment. “We like to see mistakes,” says Matt Vaccaro, a first-grade teacher in Locust Valley, New York. Not all kids are comfortable making them, though, so you have to wean your child from the idea that he always needs to be correct.
Donaldson-Pressman recommends this approach: “Tell your kids they can ask up to three homework questions a night, but beyond that they need to figure it out on their own—or circle the problem and show the teacher.” I tried this with my son, who claims I’m the only mom in the world who doesn’t give her kid the answers. When he asked, “What’s a sentence for ‘because,’ ” I responded, “Do you really want to use one of your three questions on that, bud?” The sentence he ultimately wrote? “Homework is hard because my mom doesn’t help me.” I was so proud.
If your child yells, “Mom, I need help!” say you’ll be over once you finish whatever task you’re doing. “The longer you wait, the more likely he is to reread the instructions or rework the problem,” says Jessica Lahey, a middle-school English teacher and the author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.
However, since homework is also a lesson in time management, don’t let your kid drag on indefinitely. The National PTA and the National Education Association recommend just ten minutes a night per grade, meaning 20 minutes for a second-grader, 30 minutes for a third-grader, and so on. (Of course, that doesn’t include the time some kids, including mine, spend complaining before putting pencil to paper.) Keep an eye on the clock: If your kid is making an honest effort and the assignment isn’t done when the allotted time has ticked by, shut it down and write a note to the teacher.
Showing your child that you and the teacher are partners, in regular contact, is essential. “I tell parents to call, e-mail, or talk to me anytime with homework concerns,” says Kasey Ferguson, a fourth-grade teacher in Bennington, Vermont.
While teachers welcome feedback, avoid making critical comments in front of your kid. If he’s whining about an extended response, “Don’t say, ‘This is ridiculous. I’m calling the teacher,’ ” says Dr. Stipek. “You want your child to know you’re on his side, but never undermine what’s going on at school.”
Math, which is taught a whole new way from how many parents learned it, tends to create the most friction. To combat this, Vaccaro sends lesson sheets home that parents can use as a guide. Most schools also offer portals or host seminars to explain the concepts being taught in each grade.
Homework is as much about learning responsibility as it is about grasping fractions. That means students should complete it to the best of their ability, pack it up, and get it to school themselves. One Orlando school recently banned homework drop-offs by parents. Although that may seem harsh, Lahey says, “Teachers help children develop strategies for remembering their own stuff, and bailing them out short-circuits that system.” (Note to self: Stop texting my mom friend for screen shots of the spelling words my kid failed to write down in class.)
If your kid complains that she can’t do an assignment, let her turn it in incomplete and face the music. “When a student doesn’t finish the homework or it’s excessively sloppy, I have her do it during recess,” says Vaccaro. “Once she starts missing playtime, she gets the message.”
Stepping back isn’t easy, but in the long run it’s good for your child, and for you. My son recently spilled salsa on his math worksheet. His teacher circled the red splotch and wrote, “Please don’t eat while doing your homework.” I loved it. He’s also lost points for messy handwriting and received notes about adding additional detail to his essays. As a writer it’s hard for me to resist whipping out a red pen, but the feedback from his teachers has far more impact than it would coming from me.
Homework meltdowns are nature’s way of saying a child is overwhelmed by the task, says child psychologist Laura Markham, Ph.D., author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.
A child who bursts into tears may only need a hug or a “We’ll figure it out” to settle down. But if he’s paper-crumpling mad, let him blow off steam. Say, “I see you’re upset.” Then listen to him rant, without reacting. “Until your child feels he’s been heard, you can’t convince him to see your side,” says Dr. Markham.
What if you’re the one melting down? Amy Pate, a mom of three in Nashville, got so annoyed by her third-grade son’s requests for help that when he asked how to spell brought, she erupted. “I yelled ‘B-R-O-U-G-H-T, and I’m pretty sure that was a kindergarten word!’ ” she says. “I felt terrible, particularly later when my friends told me that brought is actually a tough word.”
To say I’ve been there is an understatement. I literally had to do Lamaze breathing to avoid losing it during my son’s Australia project. If you feel your BP rising, walk away, splash water on your face, or do whatever helps soothe you, suggests Dr. Markham. Then say, “I’m sorry I got angry. I think we both need a break.” Set a timer for 10 minutes, and let your child read or play. When the time is up, say, “Okay, let’s talk about how we can figure this out, and if we can’t we’ll write a note to your teacher.” The good thing about homework is that there’s always tomorrow (and the next day, and the next) to do better.