It's not actually helping them learn anything -- and might be hurting them.
Confession time: I hate helping my kids with their homework. Hate it.
It’s not because I don’t like my kids. It’s not even because I don’t like homework (though I don’t, unless I’m the one doing it because I’m a weirdo). It’s because when I say brightly, “Okay kids, time for homework!” they do this:
I’m not even kidding, that is actual footage of my children at 4:15 p.m. on weekdays (except I would never tie a string around their necks, obviously). Immediately after the flopping and screaming subsides, everyone suddenly has to use the bathroom for a half-hour. Then, when we’re finally ready to start homework, someone invariably discovers they’ve left something essential at school — something like their homework folder, textbook, or self-control.
Some afternoons we work on homework straight through dinner and into bedtime. Some nights bedtime is delayed because homework must be done. Some nights everyone gets to bed on time with their homework neatly tucked into their folders, but those nights are so rare they’re like a solar eclipse — you can’t look straight at it or your head will explode.
No matter what, though, I’m exhausted at the end of homework and so are they. Yet I feel compelled to push them through it every night, because their teachers are so concerned when they don’t turn it in. I’m supposed to do homework with my kids to help them learn to complete assignments, which I think is meant to teach them independence. But I feel like all my help is teaching them the opposite — total, paralyzing dependence.
Bill Stixrud, a neuropsychologist who co-authored the book The Self-Driven Child, happens to agree with me. He believes that many young adults are stricken by a lack of agency, which he defines as “feeling in control of your own destiny.” Agency isn’t something kids are born with; it has to be built, and as he explained to NPR, when parents micromanage they actually strip away their child’s agency instead of building it up.
Also, we need to make peace with reality. And the reality is, you can’t make a kid do his work. And that means it can’t be the parent’s responsibility to ensure that the kid always does his homework and does it well.
In some ways, it’s also disrespectful to the kid. You know, I start with the assumption that kids have a brain in their head and they want their lives to work. They want to do well. That’s why we want to change the energy, so the energy is coming from the kid seeking help from us rather than us trying to boss the kid, sending the message, “You can’t do this on your own.”
He practiced what he preaches, too. He once offered his daughter $100 to get a C on a test to prove to her that grades don’t matter as much as everyone believes they do.
I wouldn’t go that far, but I do want my kids to be self-driven instead of mom-driven. And as much as I hate daily emails about missing homework, micromanaging their work for them isn’t really helpful in the long or the short term. They’re not learning to complete assignments, they’re learning that they don’t have to do it on their own because I’ll sit them down and make them do it.
That doesn’t communicate to my kids that I have much confidence in their ability to do their own homework, nor does it help them develop that confidence in themselves. And as much as I don’t want them to fail, even at homework, if I don’t let them fail they’ll never know how to succeed.
So even if it means emails and detentions, I’m going to release my kids from homework purgatory. But not because I hate homework purgatory (though I do). Because I’m helping them build agency.
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