This Thing I'm Doing: Negotiating My Kid's Homework Assignments

This might get awkward, given that my older Smartling's teacher sometimes reads this website. (Hi, Ms. M.!)

NOT Ms. M. (Image Source)

And it will definitely get awkward because, as a once and future English teacher, I assigned lengthy and intricate homework assignments to my former students. (Hi, former students!)

NOT my former students. (Image Source)

But, for all of this awkwardness, I have to admit that I generally think that homework, in its traditional broad application, is dumb.

And I'm not alone in this opinion. My homeboy Alfie Kohn (whom I also wrote about here) has written The Homework Myth, an excellent book that absolutely destroys conventional wisdom about the benefits of assigning homework. The Homework Myth is a feast of evidence that shows both that homework for students in grades K-9 demonstrates no correlation with meaningful learning (in some cases it's negatively correlated with standardized test scores) and that for students in 10th grade and higher there is only a weak correlation with improved academic outcomes. Sadly, it also establishes that the quantity of homework assigned to students in the United States has skyrocketed with our increased emphasis on meeting stricter educational standards. The book is, as its subtitle promises, an excellent explanation of "Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing."

So, given this, what to do when your child comes home with homework? Frankly, I don't know. But I can tell you what I've been doing that's been working for our family.

1. We do not opt out of homework.

While there is a rebellious and self-righteous part of me that wants to assert that we won't be engaging in "educational" endeavors that aren't backed up by solid evidence of efficacy, I squelch it during homework time. And this is because I don't want to raise an entitled brat. As much as I don't want my Smartlings to spend hours of time in fruitless labor, even less do I want to teach them that I will talk them out of the requirements of their education. Also, there is some value in learning to do things simply because you have to do them, and I think that some amount of homework can work toward that. So, yes, we are a homework-doing family.

2. We do homework for a set amount of time.

Now, ours being a homework-doing family does not mean we expect our Smartling to finish assignments that are unduly difficult or lengthy. My limit for my first-grader's homework is 10 minutes per night. If her work takes her longer to complete than that, it goes unfinished. So far, she has nearly always been able to complete her work in 10 minutes or less per night. Her minute total per night will likely grow as she gets older, but I'm ready to go to bat for her spending a reasonable amount of time on homework each night if it becomes necessary.

3. We determine the underlying educational objective of each assignment and strive to meet that.

This is a very important one for me because I still resent the stupid, misguided busywork I had to do as a child. Remember that 6th grade assignment to color a picture of a knight for our medieval unit in Social Studies that I got a C on because I colored the armor in a realistic, uniform pencil-lead gray? I DO, AND I'M STILL PISSED. Was it creative? No. Was it teaching me anything about knights? Also no. WHY, SIXTH GRADE SOCIAL STUDIES TEACHER? WHY? Similarly, I recently found a worksheet I got an incomplete on in first grade because, although I did the math required to complete a coloring puzzle, I didn't do the coloring. It was a math assignment, not a coloring assignment. WHY, FIRST GRADE TEACHER? WHY? As far as I could tell my small motor skills weren't lacking, so the coloring on these assignments served no purpose. WHY, DAMMIT, WHY?


Similarly, last year when Smartling-the-elder came home with a math assignment that required her to draw 40-odd bird cages containing only 20-odd birds to do a subtraction problem, I tried to get her to complete the problem using one color of Unifix cubes as the cages, matching a different color of Unifix cube "birds" to each "cage," then counting up the unmatched "cages." It still would have been double-digit subtraction, but without the time and effort of drawing cages and birds, and I was ready to argue this to her Kindergarten teacher should the lack of drawings become a problem. Because she is a diligent rule-follower with a heart of gold, my Smartling insisted on drawing cages and birds, but she did consent to drawing simple square cages and simple v's for the birds. Personally, I thought that was a silly waste of time, but it goes to address the next point...

4. Homework is between my kids and their teachers.

I help my older daughter understand the directions when she needs clarification, and I have her go back and fix mistakes in her work, but I do not otherwise help her with her homework. Her homework is between her and her teacher. I can offer her time-saving hacks, but if she chooses not to take them, I don't care. It doesn't matter to me whether she exceeds the expectations of an assignment, or if she half-asses it. And, within reason (such as when she forgot to pick up her missed writing assignments after our vacation and decided, meh, I'll skip earning the points this week), I'll let her opt out of some of them. As long as she's learning in school, reading on her own and with me, and generally keeping up, I don't care about the quality of her homework.

Thus, my kid's assignments look like a first-grader did them - because a first-grader DID do them. Her art is lopsided, her numbers are crooked, and her writing notebook is a hot mess. It's her job to practice her skills, and the teacher's job to assess that practice. My job is to provide space and tools for my Smartling to work before getting out of the way.

This is what we're doing right now, and it's working for us. We are lucky to have a hard-working autodidact (rare, I know) for a first-grader and few homework battles because of this. But, with an eye toward the future and our wild, resistant younger Smartling, I hope that with these guidelines we can make both girls' homework experiences tolerable for us all. Homework, if it has to happen, should be relevant, quick, and low-pressure. And by negotiating these values at home and, if necessary, with my Smartlings' teachers, I hope to smooth this often rocky road.

Wish me luck! And, please, more experienced parents of older children, weigh in with your advice and your own stories in the comments! Let's question this practice - and find some answers - together.