Why homework is a parent’s nightmare
Stop pushing your kids to do it
After the interrupted sleeps of infancy, and before the storms of adolescence, nicely sandwiched in the middle is the nightmare of homework. Not the kids’ nightmare. Ours.
It’s ours because many of us parents care more about our kids’ homework than they do. And therein lies the problem. Kids know whenever we care more about something than they do, and they are expert at pushing our buttons to play on our weaknesses. If we want something far more than they do, what a golden opportunity to require something of us in return. Or dig in their heels and just plain refuse to do it. Or go passive aggressive and pretend or promise to do it, but then don’t.
For children, who feel — and indeed are — fundamentally powerless in relation to big people, the foregoing plays are all about exploiting adult weakness or the need to try to get some power. I don’t blame them. As a mom this annoys me like crazy, but as a fellow human I empathize with kids’ chronic feelings of powerlessness in relation to their parents.
If you don’t believe me on this point, please do some research: Ask a few kids if they feel powerful, neutral or powerless in relation to adults in general and their parents in particular.
Homework provides the ideal power struggle for kids to assert themselves. And it’s so easy for us to get into that game — because we fear their possible failure. And we know we can help.
But the irony is that we cannot help and that our attempts to help by getting kids to do their homework (or trying to!) will reduce their own motivation to do it, and thus harm, not help them in the long run.
Homework is annoying to everyone but it has a purpose. I question its academic usefulness. As have several American studies, which demonstrated that through Grade 7 there is little correlation between homework and academic achievement. But I know that doing your homework builds a child’s motivation and drive to succeed. If we can get out of their way! That’s the hardest thing about homework. Way harder than us redoing Grade 5 math.
When we get out of their way, homework is reduced to a struggle between a child’s motivation and their reluctance. Let me be really clear here: By getting out of the way I don’t mean refusing to help with homework. A kid doesn’t understand something, or needs help with complex concepts, we help. Always. Getting out of the way means we don’t try to make them do their homework. We let them own when and whether they do their homework.
But, you say, then they’ll never do it. My idea sucks because they’ll fail. And they may. Most kids, however, are sufficiently allergic to failure that they’ll pick themselves up well before they hit rock bottom academically. This is the sweet spot, where the important learning occurs.
Broadly speaking, there are two distinct kinds of motivation — intrinsic and extrinsic. Extrinsic is the kind that comes from outside yourself: Like doing your homework because you were promised more screen time… or a new iPod… or candy… or money… or any other reward. One problem with extrinsic motivation is what it teaches — to seek rewards and to expect them. The other problem is that kids tend to feel manipulated when motivated by rewards. They like the reward but not the dynamic. And it sure doesn’t teach them to do their work.
Intrinsic motivation is what happens when kids decide to do their homework for their own reasons. If they’ve experienced a lot of parental pushing to do homework and the parenting strategy changes, they will no doubt need to rebel and do nothing for a while. But over time, most kids find their intrinsic motivation. Why? Because schools provide rich feedback for work not done in the form of various failures. Because it becomes embarrassing to be the kid who doesn’t do their work. Because most kids, in the absence of disability or trauma, have a builtin ability and motivation to do well.
And because praise happens. Specific and targeted praise after the fact is very different from offering rewards to get kids to perform a task. Praise afterwards is like the chocolate buttercream on the cake: It makes a good thing better. In the child’s mind, it reads like: “Mom and dad are so proud of me. I can do this hard thing and they know I can!!” This is the sweetness of them learning to do it because they chose to. And then we’ve raised an independent child.
Hurrah! Parenting columnist Joanne Kates is an expert educator in the areas of conflict mediation, self-esteem and anti-bullying, and she is the director of Camp Arowhon in Algonquin Park.
Kids will eventually motivate themselves to complete their homework