Articles and Topics
The H Word—Homework
I can think of a lot of “H’s” that go along with the prime H-word, Homework: Hated, Heavy, Hassle, Horrible, Hullabaloo, Hindrance, Heartache. I can even think of a good one: Helpful. Well, maybe. Let’s Hope.

Homework didn’t used to be a source of arguments and conflicts before children reached third or fourth grade. Not so any more. With the new emphasis on early literacy, many kindergarten children bring homework home (and are expected not to lose the sheets before returning to school the next day). And by the later years of elementary school, kids seem truly burdened by the daily assignments.

And the family conflict these assignments generate!

“No, you can’t watch TV until after you finish your Homework.”
“But, Mom, my program will be over by that time.”
“You know the rules.”

And so it goes, in kitchen after kitchen all over the country. You’re tired and have dinner to fix; they’re tired after having been in school all day; and you reach an impasse. What can be done?

Letting Homework Help
A first essential in reducing the Homework Hassle is to accept the fact that homework, if appropriate and reasonable, can be a good thing and let it help both you and your child.

Parents.
For you, Homework is your best way of keeping in touch with what your child is learning and what he is expected to learn. You could, of course, get this information from textbooks. But not all the material for a given course of learning is covered in a textbook; furthermore, in the lower grades, children are not always allowed to carry their textbooks home. (Let’s face it. A few things do tend to get lost along the way.) But a glance at the packet of homework assignments can give you an immediate “fix” on how your child is functioning. A few well-worded questions may be in order: “Did all the kids get this assignment, or was it only for you?” This will help you be aware of where your child is functioning, whether she is being given remedial assignments or enrichment activities.

Kids.
No matter how much they might object, Homework can be a very good thing for children of any age. During most of the time in school, they have learned in a group situation. Homework requires them to work on their own and gives them an opportunity to rehearse and apply skills and knowledge acquired in school. And it gives them a chance to show you what they can do and receive compliments and recognition from you.

Should There Be Rules?
Definitely. And, as long as the total family schedule isn’t too disrupted by those rules (as when the family might be going on a special outing or trip), they should be abided by faithfully. The basic rules should include minimally a time, a place, and a contract. Let’s consider each of these individually:

A time.
A specific time should be arranged for doing Homework. Many families set that time as immediately after arriving at home—getting it over with, so to speak. Personally I think our kids need a break from school-type work when they first get home. To me, that is a good time to play alone (they’ve been in a group all day) or with siblings or neighbors, watch approved TV or videos, practice the piano, etc. That means putting Homework off until after dinner in most households, and maybe that’s not such a good thing for children likely to get sleepy right after dinner. You can find the right schedule for your children that fits the time demands of the adults.

Incidentally, my granddaughter who is in the fifth grade one-upped me on this topic last week. This is so high-tech and upscale that it sounds slightly ridiculous, but her teacher puts an entire week’s homework assignments on the net on Sunday! Rachel wants to do them all at once and get it over with. I don’t think doing them all at once is a good idea, but it seems to work.

A place.
Children should have a specified place to do Homework. Your child may prefer to work at her desk in her own room with no one to disturb her, and this is fine. But I think the best place in the world to do Homework is at the kitchen table while a parent prepares dinner. Siblings working at the same table can help one another if necessary. This arrangement not only keeps the parent in the action arena, but finishing before time to set the table for dinner is made slightly more probable with this arrangement.

A contract. The kind of contract I am talking about is between the child and the parent, not between the child and the school. And I don’t mean a written contract—just an accepted arrangement. There should be at least three components to the contract: (1) you both have had input into the rules; (2) you will be available as a resource, if absolutely needed, but you will not do the work; (3) you are to be shown the Homework when the child is finished. (Some teachers will require you to sign the homework.) This last feature may make it sound as though you don’t trust your child, and not doing so when it comes to completing Homework is probably wise. Breathes there a child who has not said to a trusting mother, “I’ve finished my Homework” in order to be allowed to watch a favorite TV program when the worksheets had not even been taken out of the backpack? Make sure it gets done—and make certain it is put in a place where it can be found the next morning. If necessary, show your own willingness to be part of the process by turning off TV that you might have wanted to watch. Your willingness to make a sacrifice shows that you consider the child’s assignment important.

The contract is really a 3-way commitment: your child, the teacher, and you. For your commitment, do whatever is necessary to create the time and the place, and be careful not to criticize the assignments your child brings home as too hard or too much or voice the opinion that the assignments seem silly to you. You and your child’s teacher have to be collaborators in this venture, or “Helpful” will lose its place as an H-word associated with Homework. If the assignments appear reasonable and appropriate, support the teacher by facilitating their completion. If they appear excessive or much too difficult, schedule an appointment with the teacher and discuss it with her. With this approach, Homework can make a valuable contribution to your child’s education and not disrupt family Harmony.

Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education