School assignments: why they can sometimes do more harm than good.

It’s 7.30 pm on a Wednesday. The kids and I have arrived home with the after-school activity juggernaut completed. Wednesday is my late day at work so my five-year-old goes to chess club after school, finishing at 4.30.

After a quick play in the school playground, we head over to her eight-year-old brother’s campus two kilometres up the road to pick him up from gymnastics. Next up are the 10- and 14-year-olds, and finally my 12-year-old, who finishes basketball practice at 5.45 (and who realises in the car he has left his school shoes courtside and has to go back and get them before we can leave).

Luckily, there are no accidents on the motorway today and in anticipation of the Wednesday night late finish, I have the slow cooker bubbling away as we arrive home in the darkness, at the same time as my husband. I put the rice in the microwave while my husband gets the little ones bathed and into pyjamas. The older three grudgingly unpack their bags and set up their books and computers for the second shift: homework.

This particular night, in the midst of a fairly intense family discussion about the nature of space and the validity of black holes, antimatter and gravity, where the young minds in the family (and the old ones too) were being challenged, creativity was being inspired and investigative thinking was being developed, I reluctantly look at my watch and declare dinner over so that we can get through the evening’s homework. I cringe at the memory.

After we clear the table and do the dishes, I sit my five-year-old down—at 7.45 pm, no less—for home readers and sight words. Only half an hour earlier, she had been introduced to the concept of gravity.

I then fight with my eight-year-old to complete his homework in (even slightly) legible handwriting, when all he can think about is whether antimatter could exist within an environment of gravity. I also have to tell off my 10-year-old who, inspired by the dinner-time conversation, tells me he just wants to read the new sci-fi book he checked out of the library.

My 12-year-old stares blankly at his computer, trying to get started on his art assignment, while my 14-year-old works away diligently, trying to do two nights’ worth of homework in one, as she has her beloved dance class the following night.

As I climb into bed exhausted later that night—way past everybody’s bedtimes—I ask myself what we have gained by making my children industriously complete the night’s assigned tasks: a five-year-old tantrum, some creativity stifling and a sharp dissolution to some quality family time.

I am not the only one bothered by this homework malarkey. Many of my friends are in the same situation—or worse. What about my friends who work an hour-and-a-half commute away from their kids’ school and who spend their Sundays catching up on the week’s homework set for their seven- and eight-year-olds?

Or my friend who is a single, working mother and feels the pressure to get the kids to do two weeks’ worth of homework when they have their week with her, since their dad won’t help on his week? It is creating a wedge between her and her kids.

Or my friend who spends hours after school each day working with her son with a learning disability, when he just wants to go outside and play?

Mum helping child with homework

Alfie Kohn, an American author and a proponent of progressive education (an educational movement that gives more value to experience than formal learning), argues in his book, The Homework Myth, that there is no credible evidence for homework. In fact, he argues that “busy work”—for example, the writing out of sight words or repetitive maths worksheets—can actually be counterproductive by turning kids off school and robbing families of valuable family time.

Alfie is not alone in his view on homework. Australia’s self-proclaimed “anti-homework queen” and popular parenting author and educator Maggie Dent agrees wholeheartedly. As a proponent of “common-sense parenting”, she advocates replacing homework-time with play-time, even for teenagers, suggesting that modern children’s stress levels are a direct result of a lack of downtime for children and adolescents.

Maggie also disagrees with the commonly held theory that children who are struggling at school should use homework as a time to practise the skills that they have acquired during the school day, suggesting that these students need a break from “work” and some time to simply be a child. On the flipside, she suggests high-achieving students often develop perfectionism as they strive to complete all the assigned homework tasks on schedule and with no mistakes.

One of the world’s best known parent educators, Steve Biddulph, states in his book, Raising Boys (which even has a section titled “Homework Hell”), that the pressure that comes with homework “destroys kids’ love of learning”. Even John Hattie, arguably Australia and New Zealand’s leading teacher educator and educational researcher, is famously quoted as saying, “Homework in primary school has an effect of around zero.”

So if all the experts line up in their anti-homework views, why are our kids still coming home with sight words and worksheets at the tender age of five? Michael Carr-Gregg, a leading family psychologist, suggests that it is actually upward pressure from parents to school principals—especially in private schools—that leads to the culture of homework. Yes, you heard it right, parents are demanding homework for their kids in a misguided attempt to help their children achieve academically.

In my family, we have stopped caring about homework for the children. I would love to say that since then, all has been rosy in our little corner but of course that is not the case. There are still over-tired five-year-old meltdowns, anxious teenagers trying to get assignments completed in time and traffic jams on the way home from school, but it is much calmer.

Sunday afternoons are spent with the younger kids playing outside, not stuck at the table catching up on the week’s homework or glued to the computer screen to keep up with the rest of the class on Mathletics.

My five-year-old somehow still managed to complete all her sight words without me pulling them out of the bag for the whole term. My eight-year-old has written some fabulously funny anecdotes in his journal and my 10-year-old managed to read the whole way through his favourite book series. The world kept spinning, although it felt just a little slower and more balanced.

What can parents do?

Don’t force the issue

Don’t let homework rule your household. Since giving up on homework for my kids, I have been rather surprised at my children’s teachers’ responses. One teacher suggested that my eight-year-old son (with atrocious handwriting) could write a journal each day instead of his homework. Another teacher told me not to worry, she really didn’t mind at all—just don’t let the other parents know! My high schoolers still do their homework, but I don’t force, beguile or bribe them. I do, however, have one enforced rule: no homework before dinner. Pre-dinner is a time to chat (and not via SMS) and catch up, play a game or go for a walk, not for homework.

Don’t let homework replace contributing

Parenting expert Steve Biddulph warns of the dangers of kowtowing to the idol of homework and allowing it to let our children, and especially our teenagers, not contribute to the running of the household that they are a part of. It is essential for each family member to contribute, whether it be unpacking the dishwasher or wiping the bench. A child’s contribution is valuable and important. One of the risks of the pressure of homework is that we exempt our children from their contribution to their family, so they can finish their homework. This not only robs them of a sense of belonging but of self-worth, and as mums pick up the slack, we can enable an unbalanced gender perception amongst our young men. Our future daughter in-laws will not be thankful for that!

Family time rules

Family time is what makes children feel emotionally connected and strengthened to face the world. And I regret the many times that I chose homework over family time. Never again!

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