Want to Avoid the Homework Wars? – Here’s How

Posted | by Madeline Levine | Posted in Courageous Parenting

School is back in session and parents everywhere are bemoaning the return of the dreaded H-word. Homework.

Yes, kids are coming home loaded down with math worksheets to compute, reports to write and projects to do. By the time they’ve slogged through it all—and done the extracurricular du jour—it’s bedtime. In fact, it’s past bedtime. Forget relaxing. Forget hanging out with friends. Heck, forget a sit-down meal with the family.

In general, kids have too much homework these days. The amount of time students in high-achieving schools spend on homework has dramatically increased over the past 30 years or so, and guess what? Their lives haven’t gotten any simpler during this time frame.

Not only does too much homework not foster academic achievement, it can actually hinder it. What’s more, it may harm kids in countless other ways. (For more info on this subject check out our research on homework atchallengesuccess.org.)

Excessive homework can put major stress on kids which can lead to anxiety and depression. It can prevent them from getting the sleep they need. It has been shown to make some kids gain weight (you can’t exercise when your nose is buried in a book all evening!). It can crush their love for reading.

Mostly, though, it eats up all their free time—time they should be spending on fun activities (not just extracurriculars chosen as college application fodder), family time or just hanging out with friends.

Down time, which includes time spent in unstructured play, is where the real “work” of childhood takes place. This is when kids learn about the world and their place in it and develop the critical sense of self they’ll carry throughout life.

Think of child development as a three-legged stool. One leg is cognitive and academic, one is social, one is personal. When all of a child’s time is spent on the academic leg, he never has the chance to learn get-along skills, or contribute to household chores, or figure out what’s interesting to him.

The irony is that the very skills kids need to thrive in a global economy—collaboration, innovation, problem-solving—are the ones that get neglected when the sole focus is on academics.

So what can you do if your child seems to be overburdened with homework? A few suggestions:

First, know how much is too much. For the average child (keeping in mind individual kids may be exceptions to these guidelines), an acceptable amount of homework per night is as follows:
– Elementary school: approximately 10 minutes or so per grade level
– Middle school: an hour or so
– High School: 2 to 2-1/2 hours
Any homework beyond these limits is no longer providing any advantage, and is probably cutting into those things that do provide advantages like adequate sleep and what we at Challenge Success call “PDF”– that is,play time, down time and family time.

Do a little digging. Maybe the problem isn’t what you think. Watch your child carefully as he does his homework. Does he buckle down and get it done? Or does he take frequent “breaks” to doodle on his paper, fiddle with toys or even turn on the TV? Maybe he needs fewer distractions or some pointers on time management. In fact, if you speak to the teacher you may find what he’s calling homework is actually classroom work he’s failing to get done because he’s too busy talking to his neighbor.

Help your child let go of the perfectionism. On the other end of the spectrum, some kids may take longer than they need because they want the homework to be “perfect.” Your child might be agonizing over that tough extra-credit math problem for an hour when she should probably just let it go and go to bed…or studying for five hours for an exam when two would probably suffice.

Such kids may need to lighten up a little. Perfectionism can be a precursor to depression. Life is filled with imperfections and failures and that’s okay. (Remember this the next time you start criticizing any grade less than a B.)

Ask yourself if he’s taking too many tough classes at once. If he has three or four AP classes in the same semester, that’s likely to be overload. The homework associated with these classes can be intense. Insist that next semester he take fewer tough classes and let the chips fall where they may. Winning the academic rat race is not worth your child’s psychological health and happiness, because ultimate success rests on far more than just grades.

Join forces with other concerned parents and approach the school. It’s true there are certain groups who routinely argue that schools aren’t rigorous enough. (Think “Tiger Mom” types.) But there is plenty of research citing the negative impact excessive academic pressure has on overall health, happiness, social adjustment and, yes, learning. Go ahead. Build your case, get together a group of likeminded parents and go make some noise.

Finally, get yourself out of the homework game. It’s fine to be concerned about the amount your child is doing, but beyond third grade or so, don’t get involved in the content (unless you’re invited, that is). You’re her advocate, not her night teacher.

In fact, if you find yourself needing to check behind your child on every assignment, constantly “reminding” her to do her homework, and so forth, you’re not doing her any favors. She needs to be internally motivated, and every time you get involved, you interfere with that. You do your job and let her do hers. Twenty years down the road you’ll be more likely to have a kid who is confident, resilient and enthusiastic about learning!

MLevine150wMadeline Levine, Ph.D., is a nationally known psychologist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician, consultant, and educator. Her New York Times best-selling book, The Price of Privilege, explores the reasons why teenagers from affluent families are experiencing epidemic rates of emotional problems. Her follow-up best-selling book, Teach Your Children Well, focuses on expanding our current narrow and shortsighted view of success and providing concrete strategies for parents. Her two previous books, Viewing Violence and See No Evil, both received critical acclaim. Dr. Levine began her career as an elementary and junior high school teacher in the South Bronx of New York before moving to California and earning her degrees in psychology. She has taught Child Development classes to graduate students at the University of California Medical Center / San Francisco. Dr. Levine lectures extensively to parent, school and business audiences both nationally and internationally.