“I hear you.”
“I know. After sitting in class all day, probably the last thing you feel like doing is sitting down again and working on 10 long division problems.” This is the empathetic way Adele Faber, author of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, suggests wading into a conversation about hateful homework. But then, she says, explain the problem and talk through solutions: “The problem is your teacher insists that everyone get more practice. So what would make it easier for you? Divide up the work? Do five problems before supper and five after? Or would you rather play first, and tackle them all at once?”
“We’re in this together.”
“Often times, parents go negative,” observes America’s Supernanny Deborah Tillman. “The child says, ‘I’m not doing my homework!’ The parent says, ‘Yes you are doing your homework!’ Then it’s back-and-forth and arguing.”
Tillman says you want to motivate your child, but you also want to make sure they understand that you’re not going to engage in a battle over homework.
“What I do is: homework time for the whole family. Everybody’s going to do something. I put all the children at the table: a preschooler, an eleventh grader, a middle schooler. Everybody’s doing homework at homework time. Then it’s a lot easier because they feel like they’re not alone.”
“How about a snack?”
Especially when a child is having trouble with it, homework is often difficult or boring, says Christine Carter, child development expert and author of Raising Happiness. And homework time often takes place when kids are wiped out and grumpy. “You have to do homework at the end of the day when all of your self-control is depleted or your willpower is depleted. So it’s asking something very difficult of children, especially younger ones,” she says. “To reinstate that self-control, your blood sugar level needs to be rising.”
So when kids say they hate homework, Carter says, “You can say, well you’re going to hate it a little bit less if you have a snack.” Offer something that’s protein-rich, and don’t forget to hydrate with a big glass of water. Blood sugar and humor restored, homework will go a little easier.
“Tell it to the teacher.”
When kids complain they have too homework, they often have a point, says Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of The Price of Privilege. Once kids are a little older, they can start learning to advocate for themselves and talking to their teacher about the workload. This teaches them something important, too — how to communicate about something that isn’t working for them. “Because they’re going to go out to work and they’ll have to talk to their boss or their college roommate or their spouse,” Levine says.
“Break it down.”
In Bird by Bird, the writer Anne Lamott famously describes her 10 year old brother’s despair at having left a big homework project—a report on birds—until the last minute.
“…he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”
Lamott took a lesson for writing from her dad’s wise words, but there’s a lesson for parents there, too. “Kids experience a lot of fear and stress doing big projects,” says Diane Divecha, development psychologist and research affiliate of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
When your child is struggling with a big homework project (or with the dread of getting started), help them break it down into manageable pieces. Show them how to make a to-do list, a list of things they’ll need, and a step-by-step timeline. Offer help with time management, including how to cut back on the project if necessary. But resist the temptation to do any of the actual work. Well-meaning though your impulse may be, you’ll be doing more harm than good. “Helping too much undermines a kid’s intrinsic motivation, undermines confidence, undermines skill development,” says Divecha.
We asked the experts how parents should respond when their child vents their rage or frustration over their nightly workload. Here's what they said.