Q: My son is starting Kindergarten soon and I’m dreading the homework. It’s hard enough to get him to wash his hands without a tantrum sometimes, I can’t imagine him willingly sitting down to do work. I want to get him off to a good start so he has the best chance of developing a positive attitude about it through the years. Any ideas?
A: You are not alone. The word “homework” has negative connotations for many former students, and the thought of dealing with a child who also dreads it can be daunting. Plus, you’ve probably heard that homework now is a different creature than when you were in school –many things are taught differently and there’s more of it. Keeping a few things in mind can help you (and your son) stay in a good place with homework and each other once Kindergarten kicks off.
Remember that it is not your job to make your child do his homework. You are not his manager here. You are a guide, support, cheerleader, and minor resource. Let his teacher be the person who grades him; you be the one to help him parlay feelings about the grades into motivation to work. Removing yourself as the disciplinarian here allows you to stay out of power struggles (which you’ll always lose anyway, because all he must do is not do the homework). You can offer structure – in the form of routine and extrinsic motivation – but not micromanagement. You won’t nag, argue, convince, threaten, punish, or do it for him. This might be one of the first “big kid” things he gets to decide about – let him make his decision and then sit with the consequences (grades, mild embarrassment at not having it done, etc.). Since you are the parent you can choose to let a fun thing happen only after this necessary task is done. You probably do this in one form or another – no dessert until you’ve eaten veggies, no bubbles until you’ve picked up the Legos, etc. but that is still allowing your child to make a choice in their own life (the meat of every power struggle). Respect their choice.
Help create an environment conducive to homework: a pleasant, well-lit, quiet area free of distraction and with all the needed tools to complete the job. Have him work at the same place every day and around the same time so he can quickly get used to a routine. Figure out what works best – some kids need to run around and blow off some steam between school and settling down for homework while some kids need to get right down to it so they don’t lose momentum. Similarly, some children like to have parents around to help them stay on track while others prefer privacy to do their job (since he’s a rising Kindergartener you might err on the side of being quietly nearby to encourage him to stay on task and be available for help in the beginning when needed). Remember that developing a new routine is a process and you’ll need to work as a team to figure out how to tweak what doesn’t work.
It might help your anxiety to remember that the goal of homework isn’t to turn in that piece of paper. The small and short-term goal is to reinforce what was learned in school; the bigger and long-term goal is to teach responsibility, independence, and project-management skills (time-management, planning, etc.). As with anything else in the world of parenting, if we focus too much on the concrete, immediate goal (getting the homework sheet filled out), we can easily lose sight of the more important life goals and end up shooting ourselves in the foot.
If it seems like the homework battle isn’t worth it, that it’s causing too much stress for you and your child, hurting your relationship, your child’s feelings about school, or his self-esteem – talk to his teacher. They want children to have a good initial school experience and can help you problem-solve based on their experience and what they’ve noticed about your child in class.
And you’re right, your attitude about his homework is critical because it can strongly influence his attitude. Shoot for a lightly enthusiastic one, viewing homework as a fun challenge. The attitude one develops about homework in elementary school can be the attitude one carries through middle- and high-school years when homework has a real benefit, according to various studies. In fact, it is because of these studies that an increasing number of parents and professionals have a schoolwork ban at home (even when their school does not). Some schools have implemented a no-homework policy because of research suggesting that elementary school homework has little value and can be detrimental to some children’s academic career (not to mention self-concept and self-esteem) when it causes undue stress very early on, resulting in them associating homework with daily misery. If the no-homework mindset fits your values and if your child is really struggling to get it done, you might consider finding out the school’s policy on unfinished homework and then try to work within that structure to help your child develop a good attitude about it with a manageable workload (mention your mindset and method to his teacher). The amount of time recommended by the National Education Association and the National Parent Teacher Association is 10-20 minutes in first grade, with an additional ten minutes for each grade after. Many teachers and schools try to keep these guidelines in mind when assigning homework.