Homework haters aren’t just kids — they’re parents, too. So says writer Bruce Feiler: “Heck, just drop the word into any conversation with families and watch the temperature rise,” he wrote in The New York Times.

Why does homework cause so much parental angst? I don’t think my parents hated homework — or ever gave it much thought. They jumped in if we needed help on a sticky math problem or a big science project, and once, when I left a school report on bird migration to the very last minute, my dad stayed up late to help me finish it — after giving me a lecture on procrastination. But overall they treated homework as our responsibility, and I’m certain it never caused them anxiety.

3 kids, 3 different homework styles

That was before helicopter and tiger parents, of course. Today, parents take a far more active role in their kids’ educational lives. Too active a role, in many cases. At a recent Back to School Night at an elementary school in a prosperous Bay Area suburb, one teacher told parents that she wouldn’t be assigning big homework projects. When a parent asked why, the teacher replied, “Everyone knows that the students don’t do those projects – their parents do.”

Even if parents don’t overdo it, most wonder about their role — and that’s where the anxiety comes in: Should I be doing more? Am I doing too much? Should I develop rules, or just make my expectations clear?

My three kids have three different homework styles. My oldest is efficient, but slap-dash: he finishes as much as he can at school, and dispatches the rest as quickly as possible, while hunched in an uncomfortable-looking position on the floor in a corner of the living room. My other son is highly distractible: he’ll stop mid-math problem to ponder the amazing cuteness of our cats, and then forget what he’s been doing. My daughter is a perfectionist so homework involves a lot of drama: tortured sighs, crumpled paper, and disquisitions on the idiocy of homework, her school, and education in general.

My role as a parent has been different with each child, too. Since my older son is satisfied if he produces the minimal viable homework product, I’ve tried to encourage him to put in more effort; thankfully, over time he got that message from his teachers (who he’s more apt to listen to), too. By high school, my middle son figured out his own system for avoiding distractions: he holes up in his room with headphones on until his homework is done. With my daughter, I’ve figured out that things go best when I ignore the homework hurricanes.

Hands off homework

Like my parents, I’ve learned to step out of the homework picture as much as possible. I make sure the kids set aside time for homework and make it a priority; create a comfortable, quiet, environment; provide snacks and encouragement. But I only intervene — sparingly — when asked. Actually, this what I try to do; I fail much of the time. As my kids can tell you, I’ve done plenty of reminding, cajoling, and straight up nagging over the years. In retrospect, I don’t think that did much good. It may even have been counterproductive: when he was a junior, my younger son told me, “When you remind me to do homework, it just makes me not want to do it.”

Even though I should know better, I still get caught up in homework dramatics. Just last night, I was making dinner while my daughter did her homework at the dining room table.

“Oh. My. God!!!” she shouted suddenly. She was doing her homework by candlelight (I don’t know why and didn’t ask). At first I thought her hair, or her homework, was on fire. I rushed into the dining room. She was sitting, burn-free, peering irritably into her computer.

“What happened?” I cried.

She gave me a pitying, What are you freaking out about? expression. “Nothing,” she said calmly. “Just a totally lame homework assignment.”

Homework habits that work

In the end, every family has to create their own homework system. What it looks like will depend on the age, temperament, and abilities of your child. Try to remember that homework shouldn’t be about the final product (or the final grade), but about the process itself, and the skills your child is learning along the way. As Dell’Antonia puts it, “…one of the most valuable traits for anyone in doing any job is the ability to put aside distractions and simply do the work, regardless of how much it appeals to you at any given moment.” To learn this lesson, your child may need to make some missteps, and even get a few bad grades — without nagging or a bailout from you.

Want to learn how other parents manage homework struggles? Dell’Antonia uses a timer to help her kids develop a homework habit, Philpott imposes stiff consequences when homework doesn’t get done, and Feiler offers a host of ideas from parenting experts. We’d love to know what works for you. (Particularly if you have a homework drama queen!)

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Updated: May 18, 2020