Make kids own their homework


by Susan Prosser on March 23, 2010

Dear Susan,

Last column you made mention to homework and how it is not a parent’s responsibility.  I really have no idea what you mean by that because unless I make it happen it does not get done.  Please explain.  HB

Dear HB,

The pattern that you have developed with your children is one where parent takes charge of the child’s work and the child learns that he doesn’t have to.  As parents we tend to believe that our children are not capable of developing the skills of responsibility unless we take charge of their responsibilities – quite a paradox!

In the ideal world we act as nurturers, teachers and consultants for our children.  In the research about how a child learns to be secure it has been found that a child needs to explore, play and problem solve on his/her own, within the world of peers at the appropriate age and within the context of family and school.

As long as this child has a parent/teacher in the vicinity to witness the learning and with whom he/she can consult, she will learn how to figure things out, develop skills, use resources appropriately and most importantly trust that one learns from one’s mistakes.  In other words, the child builds an experiential base of learning, having trouble, improving, mastering and trying again.  This, as I said last column is what lays the foundation for self esteem and the ability to trust oneself in adult life.

Homework is an excellent way for parents to allow their children the learning experience of taking responsibility in life.  If the message in the home is one of expecting each person to manage his own responsibilities then that message sets the stage.  The moment you start trying to control it is the moment you start taking responsibility away and therefore begin undermining their way of doing things.

I agree that we still need to be there as consultants and teachers.  You can say to your child “what is on your homework schedule today or this week and how do you plan to manage it?”  That statement says, “I am here for you and I am interested in how you are planning to meet the requirements and wonder if you will need my help in any way – this is your work and I am here.”

You are most likely at the stage where the pattern has already been set and your children believe that you will make it all happen.  In this case, you need to sit down with them and tell them you have made a mistake, that you realize that their homework is just like your work and meeting deadlines is between your child and his/her teacher.

You can reassure your children that you are not abandoning them but that you are no longer going to take charge of it.  Ask them how they want to handle this.  Ask them what time they would choose to do their homework (setting firm parameters depending on the age – for example letting them know they have to be finished by a certain time in order to get to bed, if they are younger).  Ask them how they plan to handle the consequences set by the teacher if they are not able to get all of their assignments done on time.  Ask them how they would like you to be involved.  Tell them what your rules are – for example the television or computer are off limits during the time they have scheduled for their homework.

So the bottom line is that you must not own their work or their problems but you are there to help them to manage their work.  You, as parent must set the guidelines, rules, and parameters and as the children mature they can have more say in what those are.  As parent you are there to guide – not to do it for them!  Be present but don’t take it on.

Children want to cooperate, believe it or not.  They often want to have a say in how things go, they want to feel good about themselves and they want your respect.  They just get lost when there is confusion about who is responsible for what.  Get clear and proceed with confidence and you will bring the best out in them.  And then you won’t have to do Grade 5 again – you have already passed it – let them have their turn.