Why home­work is a par­ent’s night­mare

Stop push­ing your kids to do it

The Kids Post - - School 101 - JOANNE KATES


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

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