Last week, I shared some unpopular opinions about homework. Mostly, here and on Facebook, people disagreed with me that three hours of meaningful homework was not too much. And looking back at that statement — which wasn’t exactly what I said — I see their point. Do I want my kid to be focused on academics for a full 10 hours a day? (Assuming that for those seven hours of school, she’s being taught.) When it’s put in those black-and-white terms, no, I don’t think that’s reasonable. Nor do I think the debate is all that black and white.

Regardless, parents all over the interwebs are pissed off about the amount of homework our kids are assigned. Their complaints range from the truly anguished (“I tried for two hours to help my son with his math homework, but with his learning differences, I just can’t get him to understand!”) to the kind of petty (“Having to sign a reading log is busy work — for me!”). It got me wondering, what do we do to lower this stress, for parents and students?

So I came up with some ideas. Try them out at home, and let me know how it works for you. And if you have your own ideas, please share them!

1. Reset the Priorities

What is the point of homework? Is it meant to help kids practice what they’ve learned? Extend lessons from class? Finish up something that didn’t get done in school? Complete a long-term project from start to finish? Torture you and your kid?

If you know what you want your kid to get out of homework, you can better set the parameters. See, this is your kid, not the school’s. What you want your kid to get out of his or her education matters. A lot. Once you know your homework philosophy, find out what the school and teachers think. (They might feel differently from one another.)

Then you’ve got to decide what hill to die on. If getting the right answer is a big deal for your kid’s math teacher but a conceptual understanding is what you value, someone’s going to have to compromise. For example, I’ve told my kid that I don’t believe timed math drills are useful tools. (And that’s backed up by research, y’all.) We agreed that if her grade was negatively affected by them, I would go in and talk to the teacher. Stress was instantly lowered. If signing a reading log is arduous for you, give your child that responsibility. Or decide that you’re not going to figure everything down to the minute and shoot for an estimate instead.

When the stress gets high, go back to those priorities. Talk to teachers about assignments that don’t meet your homework priorities. And if necessary, allow your kid to blow off things that are not meaningful. (Yes, I just said that.)

2. Set a Flexible Homework Routine

Whatever this schedule is, it needs to work with your family. Kids who go to aftercare may finish up their assignments before they get home. (At my daughter’s school, that’s a requirement for most assignments and students.) Other kids may come straight home, have a snack and shoot some hoops before hitting the books. Still others may not start homework until after dinner or even get up super early in the morning to finish an assignment.

Most kids really do count on structure, and it’s important that they know what to expect. At the same time, the schedule should be flexible enough to make room for everyday life — like a good cry after a fight with a friend or a quick trip to the ice cream shop for an after-school treat. When they know they can “break the rules” from time to time, they’re less likely to test their parents all of the time.

It’s also important to pay attention to how the schedule is working out — especially from year to year. My daughter used start her homework as soon as she walked in the door. But when she got a little older, it was apparent that she needed 30 minutes or so to unwind, to do something that had nothing to do with school. Of course, as kids enter middle and high school, this schedule should be their own.

3. STOP Reteaching

I can’t emphasize this enough. Stop it. Right. Now.

You are not the teacher. When you reteach, not only do you risk making your kid furious and even more frustrated with the work, you risk confusing your kid. Big time.

There is a reason that long division is going the way of the dodo bird. There is a reason that teachers introduce algebra in earlier grades. There is a reason that kids learn how to find the least common multiple before they learn to add fractions. And you might not know what those reasons are.

I would never attempt to perform brain surgery on my kid. I wouldn’t try to fix the hybrid system on my car. That’s because I’m not trained to do these things. And while many parents do an amazing job homeschooling their kids, mostly, they’re achieving this with the whole picture — and a lot of professionally developed resources.

This is probably the hardest step. It also holds the most promise for lowering stress. I promise.

4. Ask Questions, Don’t Give Answers

Want to know how to accomplish the last step? It’s pretty simple, actually. When your kid says, “I don’t know how to do this!” respond with a question.

“What does the assignment say?”
“Can you explain to me what the teacher asked for?”
“What is confusing you?”
“How can I help you figure it out?”

This puts the responsibility back onto your kid — where it belongs — without taking on any of her stress. Keep asking questions, even if she can’t answer them. Don’t solve the problems for her, but look for her to find her own solutions.

5. Let Your Kid Fail

Kids learn from making mistakes. We don’t do them any favors by preventing them from failure.

I’d rather my kid fail a homework assignment than a test and a test than a grade. And I’d rather my kid fail at something when she’s 10 years old than when she’s 40 years old. Failure at a young age won’t keep her from experiencing later failures. But she will learn from those little failures.

For that reason, you should quit checking your kids’ homework for accuracy. Heck, when they get to be in middle school, you should probably stop checking to see if their homework is done. Give them the right structure for success — space and time to complete homework assignments, little reminders, etc. — but let them chart their own way. (My friend and colleague, Denise Schipani calls this African-Violet Parenting. I call it parenting by benign neglect.)

So there you have it, five steps for lowering the homework stress in your house. I can’t promise that you’ll never have another fight with your kid, but I can say that following these steps will help you keep your cool.

Do you have other suggestions? Share them in the comments section. 

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