“My Child Refuses to Do Homework.” Here’s How to Stop the Struggle
By Janet Lehman, MSW
Do you get sucked into a fight over homework with your child every night? So many parents tell me that this is one of their top struggles with their kids. If you’re dealing with this now, you probably dread saying the words, “Okay, time to do your homework,” because you know what’s coming next — screaming, stomping, book-throwing and slammed doors. Or it might simply be hours of dealing with your complaining, whining or noncompliant child or teen who just hates to do the work. Even though you reason, lecture, nag and yell, nothing seems to change — and each night turns into a battle with no victors.
Trust me, I get it. I have to admit that dealing with my son’s homework was one of my least favorite experiences as a parent. It felt overwhelming to me; often, I just wasn’t equipped to offer the help he needed. Our son struggled with a learning disability, which made the work and the amount of time required feel unending at times — both to him and to us. My husband James was much better at helping him, so he took on this responsibility — but even with this division of labor, we had to make adjustments to our schedules, our lives and our expectations to make sure our son turned it in on time.
They Don’t Call It “Homework” for Nothing
Here’s something I learned along the way: homework is work, and there’s no getting around that fact. It’s a chore for both the child and parent. It’s important to understand that schoolwork is often the most difficult part of your child’s busy schedule. Helping your kids manage it despite all the other activities they would rather be doing can be challenging at best. Remember that it’s your child’s job to go to school and learn (including getting homework completed) and your job to provide for your kids, run the house and offer love and guidance to your children.
I know from experience how easy it is to get caught up in power struggles over homework. These struggles begin for several reasons, but the most common one is because your child would rather be relaxing, playing, texting with friends, or doing almost anything else. Know that if you deal with their frustration by losing it and getting mad out of your own frustration, it will be a losing battle. Some kids are even able to manipulate parents this way, because they know the battle over homework may result in your giving up on expectations to get it done.
Here’s the truth: letting your child off the hook for their work will ultimately create problems in their lives. Instead, focus on the fact that as a parent, you need to teach your child how to follow through on expectations and be accountable. All the more reason to take control and make homework just another part of your child’s daily responsibilities.
Here’s my advice for reducing homework hassles in your home:
- Try to stay calm: Try to avoid losing your cool and yelling and screaming, arguing about the right answer for the math problem or the right way to do the geography quiz, ignoring the homework altogether or being inconsistent with what you expect, being overly critical, or giving up and just doing the work for your child. The first step is to try to stay as calm as you can. If you get frustrated and start yelling and screaming at your child, this sets a negative tone and is likely not going to help them get the work done.
- Set clear expectation around homework time and responsibilities. Let your children know that you expect them to get the work done on time and to the best of their abilities; the most important thing is that they try their best. Set aside the same time each afternoon or evening for them to do their work. Understand that kids are all different in how they feel about and approach homework. Some may find English easy, but get really frustrated with math. Another may be a science whiz, but have no patience when it comes to writing. It’s important to know your child: their strengths and struggles, and how they learn. Some kids need small breaks throughout a session, while others may need the task to be broken down into smaller pieces and then varied. While there are some children and teens who are self-directed and able to complete homework without assistance, most require some type of guidance and/or monitoring, depending on their age. This makes it especially challenging for parents, because it means you need to perform different functions with each child you have, depending on their needs.
- Have a relationship with your child’s teacher. Try your best to build a good relationship with your child’s teacher. Start off at the beginning of the school year and stay in touch as the year progresses. Your relationship with your child’s teachers will pay off during the good times as well as the challenging times.
- Play the parental role most useful to your child. Some kids need a coach; others need a “monitor,” while others need more hands-on guidance to complete tasks. Try to match your help with what is most needed. Remember also that your child is doing the homework as a school assignment. The teacher will ultimately be the judge of how good or bad, correct or incorrect the work is. You’re not responsible for the work itself, your responsibility is to guide your child. You can always make suggestions, but ultimately it’s your child’s responsibility to do his or her assignments, and the teacher’s job to grade them.
- Keep activities similar with all your kids. If you have several kids, have them all do similar activities during homework time. Even if one child has less homework or finishes more quickly, they need to be respectful of their siblings by doing quiet, non-disruptive activities.
- Set up a structured time and place for homework. Choose a time and place and stick to a routine as much as possible. Consider adding in break times for kids with shorter attention spans. They might work on their spelling words for 15 minutes, and then take a 5 minute break, for example. Offer snacks to keep kids “fueled” for the work. Keep the house generally quiet for everyone during homework time—turn off the TV (or at least keep the volume down). Make sure your kids have a “space” for doing their work. For some kids this will mean a large work space like a kitchen table to spread out their papers and books, and for others it may mean a small quiet area in their room.
- Start early: Start early with your young children setting up “homework” time, even if it’s just some quiet reading time each night. This helps get them used to the expectation of doing some “homework” each night and will pay off as the actual work gets harder and more time-consuming.
- Offer “Hurdle Help”: Some kids need what we call “hurdle help.” Let’s say your child has big test to study for, but can’t seem to get started. You can help out by running through the first few problems, for example, until he gets the hang of it. Or you might brainstorm with your teen to help her choose a topic for the big paper she has to write. You’re not doing the work for them, rather, you’re helping them get going so the task doesn’t seem so daunting. (This concept, along with many other effective parenting techniques, is explained in The Total Transformation Program.)
- Choose the best person for the job: If you are part of a couple, consider that one of you might be better at “teaching” and then let that person take on the homework monitoring responsibilities. It will likely help the routine become more consistent and effective for your child. If you are a single parent, you might have a friend or family member (an older cousin who’s good at math, or a neighbor who’s a writer, for example) who would consider helping your child from time to time.
- Offer empathy and support. If your child is really struggling, give them some support and guidance and show some empathy. Kids are expected to do some difficult work, and your child may sincerely be struggling with it. If you have a child who is really having a hard time, it’s important to have communication with the teacher to see if this is typical for all kids, or if it’s unique to your child. If your child also has these problems in class, know that there are different approaches to helping them learn that can be useful. The teacher may recommend some testing to see if there are learning problems. While this can be hard to hear as a parent – as if something is wrong with your child – it’s important to find out how your child learns best and what your teacher and you can do to support their learning style.
- Use positive reinforcement and incentives: It’s always important to reinforce positive behavior, and that may mean offering some kind of incentive for completing homework or getting good grades. Most kids get personal satisfaction out of getting good grades and completing their work, and that’s what we’re aiming for. But, it’s also helpful to offer some incentives to encourage them. Rather than money, I would recommend offering rewarding activities for your child’s academic successes. This could include going shopping for some “goodie” the child has really wanted, renting their favorite movie and having “movie night” at home, or other ways of spending special time with a parent. These things can become more meaningful than money for most kids and they get to experience their parent in a loving, supportive and reinforcing role.
Most kids will never really “enjoy” homework, and for some it will always be a struggle. Our children all have different strengths and abilities, and while some may never be excellent students, they might be great workers, talented artists, or thoughtful builders. While it would be easier if all children were self-motivated students who came home, sat down and dug into their homework, this just isn’t going to be the case with most kids. As James often said to parents, “We need to learn to parent the child we have – not the child we’d like them to be.” Our role is to guide our children, support them through the challenging tasks, and teach them about personal responsibility.
Kindergarten, as anyone paying attention knows, is not what it used to be. I’ve published a number of posts about just how academic it has become, with kids asked to sit in their seats and do academic work often with little or no recess or physical education, and with works loads that used to be in later grades. That includes daily homework, which researchers say has no value in elementary school (other than to read). In this post, a parent explains why she doesn’t want her kindergartner doing it. She is Cara Paiuk, a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times, and other publications. She is also an entrepreneur, photographer, and the mother of “a gaggle of ragamuffin redheads.” You can follow her on Twitter @carapaiuk. This appeared on Role Reboot, and I am publishing it with Paiuk’s permission.
[Kindergarten the new first grade? It’s actually worse than that.]
By Cara Paiuk
I embrace the role I have to play in my children’s education through reading, playing, and modeling good behavior. But I also embrace my role in setting boundaries for our children, our family, and myself.
I received an email recently from my son’s kindergarten teacher regarding a new bi-monthly project that was presented as “an additional opportunity for your child to have ‘homework’ and the responsibilities that come along with it.” It sounds like a great project, yet I want to cry.
I am already overwhelmed enough as it is, and so is he.
Some nights I think his brain is at maximum capacity (I know mine is), and he dozes off by 6 p.m. Other nights, he arrives home overtired and irritable, and I inevitably have to send him to his room for a timeout. It breaks my heart when I walk in 10 minutes later and see him passed out with all his clothes on, knowing that he went to bed upset (and without brushing his teeth!).
And yet other nights he is a ball of lightning wildly unleashing the emotions and physicality pent up at school. Throw in his easily excitable 2 ½-year-old twin sisters, and you can’t even imagine the evening chaos in our house. When our son gets home, my husband and I are still nursing our wounds from our busy work day while our twin girls have just woken up from their nap and are themselves either miserably cranky or overflowing with energy. Either way, these two toddlers have an inexhaustible need for attention and stimulation, and whenever I am not feeding them a snack then I find myself cleaning one up. Whatever fragile balance we may have achieved is shattered when our son comes in from school like a cue ball.
The results are lively to say the least, and often quite lovely. When I see everyone play nicely and care for one another I feel like I must be doing something right. I treasure those rare moments of tranquility. But more often than not we face fights, tantrums, whining, messes, potty talk, insolence, jealousy, and ingratitude. We are challenged to get everyone to sit down at the table at the same time to eat the same thing, to put on PJs without drama, to go to bed on time, and anything else that requires unanimous collaboration from three free-spirited and stubborn children. So, basically everything.
We struggle to meet our children’s basic needs, much less partake in “enriching” activities. As things stand now I don’t get enough quality one-on-one time with my son, in part because he sleeps more than his sisters. Even as I try to cuddle him as he falls asleep I oftentimes hear the girls wail for snuggles in the other room. It tears me apart, but I can only do so much with this impossible juggling act.
I just can’t imagine prioritizing homework with my 5-year-old son when I feel it’s more important we spend time together as a family, nurture our children, or let the kids play together.
I am not an early childhood education expert, but it seems to me that social skills and emotional intelligence are the most critical things to teach. I see my children absorb valuable lessons from interacting that they would never learn from me alone: sharing, conflict resolution, leadership (our son teaches his sisters yoga), teamwork, praising others, and more. As a parent of multiple children, sibling bonding is one of my highest priorities. At the very least, higher than kindergarten homework.
Let’s face it, at my son’s age, homework is not really for the children, it is for the parents. Been there, done that, got the diploma.
I would rather my kids bring homework home when they are mature enough to (mostly) do it themselves. I am more than happy to help my children with their homework, help being the operative word. If there is a point to homework in elementary school, it should be to help kids with discipline, not to learn new concepts or otherwise require parental supervision or intervention. After a full day of school for the kids and work for the parents, homework seems like an unnecessary and avoidable source of friction.
I politely declined the homework project, and thankfully my son’s kindergarten teacher graciously accepted that. I embrace the role I have to play in my children’s education through reading, playing, and modeling good behavior. But I also embrace my role in setting boundaries for our children, our family, and myself.
I can’t imagine I am the only parent who feels burdened by a young child’s homework. I truly wonder how other parents with more complicated situations (e.g. single parents, families with many kids, special needs children) manage.
So I say: Let the teachers teach at school and the parents parent at home. The home is for family time or down time or play time or even meltdown time. But it should not be homework time. Not yet.
[A very scary headline about kindergartners]