Lesson: My Homework Challenge to You: Too Much, Too Young

It’s the beginning of a new school year. Are you heading into it with high expectations or worry about homework battles and school resistance?

Homework Challenge

Often we get mired down in the minutia of day-to-day struggles and fears and fail to see the big picture of our children’s lives.

What do you most want for your child? To be happy, respectful, kind, responsible, confident, independent, successful are attributes I usually hear. But what parents often spend their energy on is a good report card, a 3.5 GPA, high SAT scores, and climbing the corporate ladder.

Certainly a good education is important to gaining happiness and confidence. The question is, does a good education require hours of homework each night. Or is a better education achieved by a child who loves to learn?

A child who loves to learn has spent the better part of his early childhood learning through plenty of self-directed play and who enjoys school—where the school and the child fit. Our current public school system seems to be undermining this process. Competition in the science and math world has trickled down to “No Child Left Behind” requiring standardized testing, grading school performance, and competition for federal dollars. Many teachers’ hands are tied by administrators focused on the success of the school. Teachers are under pressure to teach a curriculum that requires more hours in the day than they have.

All of this puts pressure on worried parents who try to give their child a head start with Baby Mozart, flash cards and extra curricular activities. Homework is being given in Kindergarten and even preschool. Left in the dust is play.

The case against homework is outlined in three books, (Kralovec and Buell, Bennett and Kalish, and Kohn), touting it as detrimental to a child’s academic success. But even research in support of homework (Cooper, Robinson, and Patall, 2006) shows that it gives no achievement gain for the child before grade 4, and the gains in grades 4-6 are minimal.

Researchers have offered recommendations. Cooper, et. al (2006) agree with Good and Brophy (2003) who have “…cautioned that teachers must take care not to assign too much homework. They suggested that homework must be realistic in length and difficulty given the students’ abilities to work independently. Thus, 5 to 10 minutes per subject might be appropriate for 4th graders, whereas 30 to 60 minutes might be appropriate for college-bound high school students.”

Cooper (2007) suggested that research findings support the “10-minute rule”: “All daily homework assignments combined should take about as long to complete as 10 minutes multiplied by the student’s grade level.” 15 minutes when reading is included.

My challenge to you—especially parents of third graders and younger—is to talk to your children’s teachers and tell them your educated knowledge of the research on homework and it’s detrimental effects on play and family time. Tell them you want something different for your child.

Read more for my full article, startling results from Finland and my suggestions for an educated approach to present to your children’s teachers—for all ages.

Questions and Answers

I want your questions. Here’s how it works: You email me a question to bh@bonnieharris.com, and I answer pretty quickly. I put it in a newsletter at a later date. Please try to keep them brief without leaving out critical details.

Sharing: How soon can you expect it?

Q. I have a 2 yr. old son and a 9 month old daughter. My son wants to play with whatever his sister is playing with. He walks up and takes the object off her. Since she doesn’t mind (at the moment) I have chosen not to make a big deal about it. I tend to let him take the object away, and say something along the lines of: “She was playing with that, would you like it now?” Do you think I should be stricter in order to make it easier later when she does start to object, or when other children come to play? If I should be, how should I handle it? Should I insist my son give the object back to his sister? Should my reaction depend on how she feels about it rather than acting on principle, e.g. allow it to happen for now while she doesn’t mind, but when she starts to object presumably then I should return the object to her?

A. For the most part, I think this is merely a developmental stage and your son wants what he wants when he sees it and doesn’t yet have the objectivity or perspective to see that his sister wants it too. The ability to share, especially when he wants something or doesn’t want anyone else to have what he has is pretty unlikely until at least 3 and shouldn’t be expected. If he is in a very regulated place and sees that his sister wants something he has, he MIGHT give it to her or be able to wait until she is done. But if there is any stress involved, it won’t happen. There is no point in starting the process now so he will be ready for it when his sister starts demanding, because he will be in a different developmental stage. I think what you are saying is fine—bringing it to his attention is about all you can do right now. You might encourage him to say, “I want that. Can I have a turn?” But don’t expect much—especially if his language is not there yet. Using the term “taking turns” is sometimes easier to understand than sharing. And timers are good for taking turns. When the time comes, it will be better to work on facilitating the two of them working it out, acknowledging what they both want but not taking it back from him and giving it to her. Then he loses and will grab even harder. You want to help them work that out. Then you can say, “Your sister is crying because she was playing with that and didn’t want you to take it. What can you say to her if you want to play with it now?” And then go from there. You can start encouraging him to interact directly with her now but keep your expectations low. This is simply practice. If you see that he is angry, don’t expect him to say anything. Simply take him in the other room and calmly tell him what happened. “You wanted that toy she is playing with and didn’t want you to have it. You wanted it and grabbed it. She got and you got mad. Nothing can work out when people are angry so let’s wait and maybe later you can ask her for a turn.”

Absent-Minded or Development

Q. My 7 yr. old daughter often leaves cardigans, purses and coats at school and doesn’t seem organised. At one point last term four items went missing in a couple of days and a couple of weeks after, three cardigans came home. I ended up having to buy another, which is wasteful. I think she is too young to be responsible for anything of great value, eg money, expensive toys but I am interested to know when this improves. Is it age appropriate to be a bit scatty? She doesn’t seem to know what she needs for school until we are at the point of leaving the house and this creates tension. Is this normal? Will it improve and how can we help? My husband said he always left things on the bus and is still absent minded whereas I wasn’t like that.

A. Yes, it is normal for children this age to forget things. You are absolutely right that she is too young to take responsibility for anything major. It’s frustrating when minor things like a cardigan or library book goes missing, but she doesn’t value things differently—only you do so make sure she doesn’t take anything that you would be very upset about her losing. Her mind is occupied with so many more important things like what someone said to her or does so-and-so think her shoes are dumb. It is a time to get through but there are things you can do. Certainly you can express your frustration but do not blame her and don’t expect her to change—for a while. When an item is missing say in a non-judgmental way, “I’m concerned about the cardigan that did not come home from school. Where can you look for it? Who can you ask about it? And what can you do with your cardigan tomorrow so that it does come home with you?” (not all at once). Don’t tell her what to do but ask her to think it through. It will be more likely to stick in her mind if she has decided what she can do. Then before she goes to school, “Let’s go over what you have with you today and what needs to come home with you. What was it you decided you were going to do with it so you will remember?” The two of you might design a check list of possible possessions with a dry erase option so it can be used daily.

When it will stop is not easy to say. I believe organization is something inborn in one’s temperament—as you see with you and your husband. If she has it, she will slowly start to pay closer attention. When she begins buying her own things, she will take more responsibility. But if she is disorganized, not a lot will change. However, I do believe that working with her on what I suggested can change habits. After all, we do not need to be victims of our temperaments, merely accepting of them.

Anger and Control Issues

Q. I have an 11 yr old son who is outgoing and works well in groups. He’s never had a conduct issue at school. He’s funny and bright, but he seems to have “control issues” at times. If things don’t go his way, I’ll hear him raise his voice to his friends. I hear his friends saying, “calm down” a lot, and he told me that he’s no longer friends w/someone who was his best friend at the beginning of the school yr b/c this boy told my son he has anger issues. The other thing is he needs constant reassurance that a fun plan is in the making; he’s always asking, “what are we going to do tomorrow…can we go to the movies tonight?” I feel like I’ve already provided a summer full of fun, and my husband and I are getting very resentful. I don’t know if I’m supposed to point out to him that he has control issues & that he has to learn to be o.k. when there are no fun plans. Sometimes he’ll give me the silent treatment if he doesn’t get what he wants (a friend to sleep over). I want to say, “If you don’t change your attitude, you’re friend won’t sleep over at all…” Do I let him have the bad attitude and ignore? Do I keep just letting him work things out with his friends, and let other people constantly deal w/his control issues? I’m afraid he’ll lose friends. He doesn’t seem to have a lot of kids calling him to come to their house, like my 8 yr old does. My son has never noticed this, and I certainly don’t bring it to his attention. His friends come here a lot, and seem to have a good time and for the most part they get along well. Given that he’s headed to middle school and all that entails, I want to get a grip on how I should respond to these concerns. I’m guessing I can’t change him a whole lot.

A. It never helps to point out anyone’s shortcomings unless they are receptive, but there are other ways to help. I’m wondering what the history has been in terms of giving him what he wants. If you have already “given” him a summer full of fun and are getting resentful at his demands, my guess is that you try to satisfy his thirst for new and fun things to do. S he has learned that he doesn’t need to find things to do for himself. It is so important for kids to feel bored so they can invent things to do. Resentment signals that you give and give and then expect him to be satisfied. If he is a “give and inch, take a mile” kind of kid, you have to learn to give an inch and step back to allow his disappointment at not getting a mile. It’s always a balancing act to figure out how much is too much. When you have a demanding child, it’s so much easier to give in to the demands to avoid the hassle. The problem is, the long-term learning is that he expects you to rescue the situation. To avoid resentment, we must learn to give only what is acceptable to us. It is also critical to learning delayed gratification to acknowledge his disappointment, let him know you understand, don’t blame him for how he feels, and then let him have his anger, disappointment, poutiness, etc. It’s not helpful to say things like, “You have to learn to control yourself.” Or “No one’s going to want to be your friend if…” Acknowledge: “It’s really frustrating when your friends don’t do things the way you want.” Maybe share a similar experience of yours. When you have said something understanding that connects, then problem solve. “What do you think he didn’t like about what happened? How do you think you could both get what you want out of this?” We want so much to tell our kids what’s wrong with them and what to do about it that we never teach them how to problem solve and put them in the driver’s seat of their interactions—in other words, give them responsibility for their behavior.

Story

My 6 yr. old son did NOT want to go back to school. In your response to my question you stated that we always have a choice. In this case, Ian could go back to school grumpy; neutral, just putting one foot in front of the other; or happy because he’ll get to see all his friends! The other part of your response was remembering to use CONNECTIVE language with him.

Well…on another day recently he layed flat on the floor and stated, “I do NOT want to go to school!” (The bus picks him up at our front door and was already waiting, just increasing the tension. Yikes!) At first I stated, “Buddy, you have to go to school.”, with some emphasis on “have.” Then my brain clicked! CONNECT, EMPATHIZE! So I stated, “Yea. It can be really HARD to do something when you don’t want to. You know I just started working out at the gym, and I really REALLY don’t want to go today!!!” Can’t remember if he said something back, but within seconds of me making my connective statement he just picked himself up and headed out the door to the bus! My jaw hit the floor!!! IT WORKS!!!!

A few days after this incident, my son said to me, “You really didn’t want to go to the gym, huh?” And what I realized from his statement is when I connected with empathy with him, not only did it help him get on the bus, but I’m being a role model and he’s learning to empathize with others. Empathy—a good life skill to learn!

 

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