Rebalancing the homework system

FRESH TAKE

ESTEEM BOOSTING Children feel a sense of accomplishment when they are allowed to take  responsibility for their work.

Homework is something all of us have struggled with. First, when we were children and had to do our own homework; now, when we are parents and have to make sure our children do theirs. What is it about homework that makes it so stressful? I decided to study this phenomenon and see where it led me.

The objectives of assigning homework to students are twofold. The first is to make sure students understand what is taught in school, and further their learning on a particular topic. So students are often asked to revise chapters, do worksheets, or make some charts and reports. The second objective of homework, and possibly the more important one, is to teach children about responsibility, time management, creativity and resourcefulness. This objective, unfortunately, is mostly forgotten.

In our anxiety to be good parents we often focus only on the first objective of getting the work done. If that means that we need to do the homework, then so be it. We stay up late and work on the chart, or cut out and stick the pictures. We beautify the project so that it looks good. Eventually, it becomes our homework, not our child’s. We try to ensure our child’s project is the best in the class, because we, as parents, feel validated by that. After all, we don’t want our child’s teacher to feel that we are not ‘good enough’ parents who are not interested in their child’s homework, and do not ensure that it is done on time.

Perceptive kids

Children are sometimes more perceptive than we may like them to be, and they pick up on these anxieties of ours very quickly. They then take no time in transferring the responsibility onto us! And we, unknowingly, take it. Who said parents aren’t a gullible lot? If the teacher does not approve of the work submitted then it is no big deal for the child because it wasn’t their work in the first place. As parents, it becomes our responsibility to compensate for our child’s lack of responsibility.

However, contrary to what we may believe, children like to feel a sense of ownership about their work. They like to feel that they did it independently, and that they are capable of doing it all by themselves, without inputs from their parents. It makes them feel all grown up and gives them a sense of satisfaction. It doesn’t matter if the output is not perfect, if the lines are not straight, or the picture is a little crooked. When they do it on their own, they get a feeling of accomplishment. When we step in and do it for them we deprive them of this opportunity to feel satisfied.

The blame for parents falling into this trap does not rest entirely with the parents. Teachers are very quick at asking parents to get more involved in their children’s homework. Very often teachers comment on how parents are not committed to their child’s development because they don’t help them at home. And should the teacher come to know that the child’s mother works full-time outside the home, she is quick to pass judgment on how the mother doesn’t focus enough on the child’s work. After all, teachers want the students’ projects to be near perfect because their own performance is judged on it!

So this is what an out-of-balance and dysfunctional homework system looks like. As parents, we make frequent inquiries about assignments given; we keep reminding our child to do his work; we keep asking if the work has been done; we help out by doing some (sometimes most) of the work; we give lectures about the work not being finished; and, we feel responsible for our child’s failure if the work does not get done on time and does not get done well. Teachers, on the other hand, lecture, persuade or coerce the children to do their work; they give frequent reminders and deadline extensions and make-up opportunities; they make the work easier if it is not done; they give special rewards for it being done; they ask parents to get more involved; and, they also feel responsible for the child’s failure.

While parents and teachers are filled with all this sense of anxiety and responsibility, the children learn to beat the system. They provide excuses about assignments; they keep listening to reprimands but wait till the last minute to get started; they do their work in a busy part of the house so as to attract maximum attention and get maximum inputs (sometimes even without asking for them). They rush through and do their work carelessly, because the responsibility for doing it well is not theirs, but their parents’ or teachers’. And, if they get poor grades they are, naturally, quick to pass on the blame to their parents!

The question then is that if the homework system is so out of balance in your home, how do you rebalance it? You need to be able to look at your role in this system, and the physical infrastructure within which the homework happens.

Regular time

As a parent, you need to establish a regular time and place for homework to be done. Preferably this should be earlier in the day than later. Also, there should be a definite start time and end time, so that you have time to interact with your child without the homework sword  dangling on both of you. Often the only interaction that happens between parents and their children is about their homework (which has a knack of stretching into all available time). Your emphasis with respect to homework should be on effort, not outcome; on process, not product. Also, fix a place in the home, where homework should be done, and ensure this is not in the centre of the house, otherwise there is a constant invitation from the child (and a temptation for you to) jump into the process. Provide all the necessary materials and instructions. Clarify the consequences for non-compliance. And, then, most importantly, stay off the dance floor!

It is your child’s job to keep track of books and assignments, start on time so as to finish on time, ask for (limited) guidance if needed, and turn in the work on time. And, most importantly to accept responsibility for his grades (high or low).

As with all change, this rebalanced system will take time to settle down. Expect to be constantly tested. But stay firm and be vigilant of lapses. And, in the meantime, if your child’s teacher is not so appreciative of your ‘uninvolved’ approach try helping her redefine her role! Good luck!

(The writer is a counsellor who works with adults, children, families and couples)

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