Does homework make anyone besides me behave rudely? I hate to actually recollect the following, much less write about it, but a few nights ago when Belle started to ask me a question I didn’t even let her finish; I just cut in with, “I’m not speaking to you until you get your homework done,” at which point I turned and walked into the pantry for a roll of paper towels.
Charming, I know. But that was after two previous hours of fruitless efforts to assist this fourth-grader in focusing on her homework and getting it done, and after hearing that one of her excuses was “There are too many distractions,” so I decided to remove one of them: Myself.
Was that effective? No. It just hurt her feelings, and the question she wanted to ask me was probably about her homework anyway, so I did no one any favors by cutting her off like that. I was just exasperated!
We’re only a month into the new school year and already the homework issue is causing Belle and me misery. And Joe, who’s in second grade, also has homework every night, which started in first grade, and which I feel obligated to make sure he gets done. So every evening after school, instead of having a relaxing break from their class work my kids and I enter into a stressful back-and-forth about getting their homework done which, between that and eating dinner, leaves us very little time for anything fun or enjoyable before bedtime.
Joe’s already told me how much he hates homework, but when he asked me if I also hated homework when I was his age, I answered honestly that I don’t even remember having homework when I was his age. Not in first and second grade. I don’t remember doing a lot of homework until high school, and at that point it was entirely my own responsibility. My mother didn’t start badgering me about doing it when I got home from school; she didn’t even know what I was supposed to be doing. I understood the consequences of doing it or not for myself and made up my own mind about whether or not to do it, how much time should be allotted, and when I was finished.
I don’t think my light homework burden was unique at that time, either. According to a 2004 national survey of 2,900 American children conducted by the University of Michigan, the amount of time spent on homework is up 51% since 1981, the year I graduated from college and finally escaped it. But more disturbing, according to another study of kids 6 to 8 years old, homework increased from 52 minutes a week in 1981 to 128 minutes weekly in 1997 for those youngest students.
As a parent I’ve certainly wondered if it’s worth it. And there are at least two well-reviewed, well-researched books that say definitively, it’s not. The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn and The Case Against Homework by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, are scholarly reads that leave you convinced: not only is excessive homework not getting kids—particularly grade-school kids—academically ahead, but it’s actually undermining our children’s natural love of learning and souring their attitudes towards school. Along with that, I can testify, it can cause a real strain in parent-child relationships and eats up way too much play time.
I had one friend tell me a teacher admitted to her that homework is primarily a way of testing the parents’ willingness to be involved in their kid’s schoolwork. But I, for one, don’t like being tested that way. If you’re going to test my involvement, test it on something that has proven value for my child. According to the nation’s top homework expert, Duke University’s Harris Cooper, homework does not measurably improve academic achievement for kids in grade school, and when they do too much of it test scores actually go down.
Author and education critic Kohn asserts that “No study has ever found any academic benefit to homework before high school,” and that all this homework is based on a set of misconceptions about learning (with volume and repetition as central tenets) and on a misguided focus on competitiveness.
But alas, Belle and Joe still have to do it. The existence of those books, studies, and expert opinions is no match for the prevailing views of the administration at nearly every grade school in the country, including ours. So much as I wish my evenings with my young children could be spent playing outside, preparing and enjoying dinner, reading books, and not doing these endless worksheets, I don’t see how we can opt out.
I guess I’m just going to have to try harder to not be impatient, to not be upset if they don’t always get it done, to be helpful without doing it for them, and to at least be civil in my attempts to get them to do it for themselves. And to make sure, at the very least, that I apologize when I do let it get to me.
So I’m sorry, Belle.