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Parenting: Time-Outs for Parents

In homework wars, less parental involvement can be more effective.

By Susan Isaacs Kohl

Every day I meet parents who are concerned about how to provide the right kind of support for their children in school—especially when it comes to the nightly ritual of homework. Parents want to make sure their children do their best, and they want to help as much as they can. They don’t want to add to their children’s stress, but sometimes when parents try to help, they end up fighting with their kids over how and when homework gets done. Fights don’t actually help get the work done—or help children feel good about their schoolwork. Nonetheless, the battles rage on in many homes.

As the season of SATs, finals, and decisions about fall classes heats up, here are some tips for preserving your sanity and approaching schoolwork in a way that can realistically help your child.

Stay neutral

It’s hard not to participate in the parental buzz of comparing kids’ grades, test scores, and other achievements—and watching your child struggle when others seem to glide smoothly along can be nerve-racking. A friend of mine, a teacher, still remembers the day frustration overload impelled her to rip her second-grade daughter’s spelling book to pieces. “My daughter couldn’t remember anything we went over. In my delusion of the moment, her future seemed to ride on those spelling words.”

My friend’s daughter now works as a college dean, so clearly her second-grade spelling words did not determine her life’s path.

It can be hard to maintain a credibly neutral, nurturing voice. But when parents assume a sharp or impatient tone, children criticize themselves and withdraw from communication. If we freak out over test scores or get in power struggles over homework—the reactions we’re prone to as concerned parents—it’s a sign that we need to step back and remember to maintain neutrality.

Imagine taking ballroom-dance lessons from a teacher who is overly invested in your learning. He gets emotional when you can’t learn to salsa and loses his temper when your concentration ebbs. (Above: Sarah Wilkins) How long would you want to go to class?

Of course, when children are in elementary school, parents do need to set schedules and restrict TV and computer time until homework is completed. If kids resist such structure, the goal is to help them organize their work and get started—without yelling at them. I always suggest adopting the detached manner of an experienced flight attendant steering passengers to their seats.

Offer support as needed

When my daughter was a teenager, she once stayed up most of the night working on a report. In the morning, she emerged from her room, not as exhausted as I feared, but filled with a sense of discovery: “If I work harder, I can really do well!” The night before, I had decided to suspend concern about her bedtime and not to ask questions such as “Couldn’t you have started this earlier?” I wanted her to “own” her report so she would also “own” the sense of accomplishment—plus learn firsthand from mistakes, like neglecting to plan ahead.

With younger children, parents can help with planning ahead, so long as they aren’t overbearing. Walnut Creek mom Heather Osborne showed her son how to organize his work as he adjusted to middle school, and he really took to it. She says, “He tracked his homework scores so well that he could show the teacher when she forgot to record one.”

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Now that Osborne’s son is a junior in high school, when she asks about assignments, she senses she’s being intrusive. So her new way of being supportive is backing off.

Don’t focus on the grade

Years ago, I was in New York City preparing to go on the Today show as a child development expert. I watched the live show on a small monitor in the waiting room as the segment’s producer coached me. “Just be really good,” he repeated nervously. “It’s important for you to be really good!”

His prompting had the same effect as my father’s saying, “You should get straight As.” Both left out a key element: how to do one’s best. A young person preparing for a big exam might benefit more from relaxation techniques like slow, deep breathing than pressure to score high.

Fear of not making the grade only hinders us. On the other hand, having fun with a process predisposes people to keep trying.

Make learning fun

Students are more likely to sustain effort when they devise ways to have fun with what they’re learning. June Johnston, director of Gateways Learning Center in Walnut Creek, works with struggling students and those preparing for the SAT. Many of her students arrive with a dislike of school and a conviction that they aren’t good learners. As a result, Gateways emphasizes the two most important ingredients of learning—fun and success. For instance, Johnston says, “Good test-takers learn to view their strategizing on an exam as a game.”

Of course, parents can always help pump up the fun factor in learning if they have ideas for bringing an academic subject alive. Then, when it comes time to study for a test, just making a card game out of vocabulary words or a quiz show out of math problems can be helpful—if your child enjoys that approach.

Recently, a boy told me he didn’t like doing his homework. Instead of listing the reasons why he should like it, I asked if it was hard for him. With his consent, we then made his assignment into a game and worked together on it.

We need to remind ourselves thatour understanding and encouragement are an investment in our children’s future. Our approach models the language and tone our children will use to bolster themselves when faced with challenges. So whether it’s advanced calculus or beginning addition, validating feelings and helping young people see how their efforts pay off provides the best support of all.

Published: Diablo, April 2007

Author bio: Susan Isaacs Kohl is the director of the White Pony School in Lafayette, California, and has been a consultant to parents and teachers for more than 30 years. She is the author of The Best Things Parents Do.


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