Atoning for homework

Common mistakes parents make regarding schoolwork, and what to do about it.

October 1, 2006 08:28
4 minute read.
homework pic 88

homework pic 88. (photo credit: )


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The battleground tales echo in the trenches of carpool lines and along the borders of bus stops: The brawls over book reports, the collisions over long division. You'd be hard pressed indeed this Yom Kippur to find a parent who wasn't in need of a few moments of atonement for threatening, yelling or performing otherwise sin-worthy deeds regarding their children's homework. Why do well-meaning parents so often see sparks fly over their kids' schoolwork? The answer likely boils down to a series of honest parental mistakes that leave children overly dependent on mom and dad to organize, orchestrate and execute their homework. (Mistakes that - in my personal and professional experience and opinion - circulate through the Jewish parent population like bagels at a Yom Kippur break-the-fast.) In the name of restoring peace and sanity to Jewish homes everywhere (at least between the hours of 4 and 8 p.m. on weeknights), here are the most common and counterproductive mistakes parents with otherwise good intentions make regarding their children's homework. Mistake No. 1: Becoming overly involved in our children's homework Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting we shouldn't be involved in our kids' schoolwork. But research shows that excessive parent involvement can be just as detrimental as inadequate parent involvement. It's like teaching our child to ride a bicycle. If we take the under-involved parent route (hanging out on a park bench while yelling for our kid to hop on the bike and start pedaling) our child is sure to wipe out a millisecond later. But taking the opposite approach (holding onto the bike with a white-knuckled death grip) isn't going to get our child riding either, as he'll never have the chance to learn to balance without our support. Only by taking a step back from our children's homework, will we give them precious opportunity to develop the skills and confidence they need to pedal their way through homework - and life - independently. Mistake No. 2: Pushing for homework perfection Insisting our children's homework shine like the top of the Azrieli Building not only fans the flames of academic burnout; it can also set children up to fall flat on their faces in the classroom. Take the following scenario: David is having a heck of a time with his fractions homework. He's got his numerators and denominators confused and doesn't understand how 1/8 could possibly be smaller than 1/4. As David struggles, his mom mercilessly has him rework each botched problem. Before long, he's in tears. That's when David's dad steps in with a lengthy tutorial about the way they taught fractions in the "good ol' days." Two excruciating and emotional hours later David et al are finished with their homework. The following day David turns in his immaculate assignment - and proceeds to bomb a pop quiz on fractions. Our role in the homework process is to recognize - not camouflage - our children's academic needs. A little technical support is certainly appropriate, but if our child is incapable of doing his homework without our support, it's time to consult the teacher. Mistake No. 3: Expecting our children to be able to do homework anytime, anywhere Having spent a decade and a half as a classroom teacher, I can tell you that kids do homework in the darndest places: On the sidelines at soccer practice (during water breaks); in a restaurant (on a napkin); in the car on the way to a lesson (with a broken crayon); in front of the television (while watching). I even had a pupil do his homework while getting a cast in the emergency room (using his good arm)! The trouble is that kids have busy little minds - they often find it difficult to concentrate under the best of circumstances. By giving homework a clear time and place in our kids' hectic lives, we set our children up to succeed independently. Mistake No. 4: Resorting to threats and punishments Let's be honest, we've all taken the low road at one time or another. After all, there's no faster way to get a homework-evader to hit the books than threatening to revoke some privileges. But nothing transfers the responsibility of homework from child to parent quicker than an adult-controlled threat. Fortunately, it's perfectly possible to keep clear consequences in the picture without stooping to such levels. All it takes is a subtle semantic alteration that magically transforms your statement from a threat to a choice. Rather than saying, "Finish your book report or I won't let you go to Ari's house later," put the ball in your child's court by saying "You have a choice, either finish your book report and play with Ari, or don't finish it and stay home later to work on it." Mistake No. 5: Having a negative attitude about homework Kids hate homework. And why not? It's difficult, time-consuming and often downright boring. Still, when we parents join our children in complaining about their homework, we only make the situation that much more torturous. If on the other hand, we can muster a thumbs-up attitude about homework, research show that our kids will be more internally driven to do their assignments and more successful at school in general. And that means we'll all have fewer sins to repent next Yom Kippur. Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally-syndicated Jewish parenting columnist, award-winning Jewish educator and mother of four. Her Jewish parenting book will be published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House, in 2007.

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