Parenting Advice That Makes You Go Hmmmm: Giving Homework to Parents?

In the fall, Fairfax County Public Schools included this little gem in its weekly email under the headline: “Tips for Parents: Let Your Elementary-Age Child Give You Homework.”

The short piece read like this: “For many parents, it’s been a long time since they had to do homework. So when their children complain about it, they aren’t always sympathetic. Parents can better understand what their children are going through if they go through it too. Once every week or so, let your child give you an assignment. Even if it’s easy for you, don’t show it. Instead, ask your child to help you. One of the best ways for children to learn something is by teaching it to someone else. It will make your child feel important and a little smarter. It’s a great ego booster.”

To which I scratched my head at the convoluted thought process: I can’t understand my child not wanting to do homework because I don’t have any homework of my own? However, I did go to school, and at that time, I did have homework. But those distant memories aren’t enough for me to emphasize or sympathize with my fourth or fifth grader today.

Furthermore, life is full of things we don’t want to do, like dishes, laundry, grocery shopping, housecleaning, bill paying, taxes, etc. All of us, no matter if we “work” outside the home or not, have busy work (aka, homework) that needs to be done that we don’t particularly like doing. Learning how to summon the internal will to do such work is part of growing up—and the more our youngsters have to deal with unpleasant but necessary tasks, the more used to them they’ll become and the more able to overcome their natural resistance to get ‘er done.

I originally posted a brief comment on Facebook after receiving the email, and I quickly found out I wasn’t the only parent wondering why this was put forth as a good idea. One local reader—who has kids in Fairfax County Public School too—said, “What cracks me up about that argument is that we have experienced it…because we went to school. And we had homework! And my parents just asked if I did it. They didn’t sit over my shoulder to make sure I did it and they certainly didn’t offer to do any assignments with me!”

Another pointed out, “The great thing about being human is that I can imagine what it’s like to have a mouthful of thumbtacks without experiencing it!!!” One poster had a good thought: “If kids can give parent’s homework, then can parents give teachers homework?”

The bottom line is that parents can empathize with our kids without resorting to dumb ideas like allowing them to assign us homework that we pretend to have trouble doing. When I read this out loud to my kids at dinner one night, my high schooler, middle schooler, fifth grader and fourth grader thought it was a pretty funny—and very strange—idea. As my fifth grader said, “Why would I want to give you homework?”

It’s ideas like this that make kids sometimes view adults as, well, not the brightest bulb in the socket.

Appropriate After School Schedule

Q: What is an appropriate afterschool game plan for a first grader and third grader? Can you give me some advice on how to handle homework, chores and bedtime for this age? What type of expectations should we have?

A. I love this question, mostly because so many parents start the school year without even considering what kind of afterschool schedule their kids should have. We get so focused on school, we forget there’s other hours in the day that need our careful consideration as well.

I’m of the firm belief that less is more when it comes to kids and their schedules. As a result, our four kids do very little compared to my kids’ peers–and frankly, they like it that way. Maybe because that’s what they’ve always known, but I think it’s because we give them plenty of time to be kids–carefree and footloose, so to speak.

Here’s how you can come up with a schedule that will work for your entire family. Jot down your priorities as a family. For us, it’s eating dinner together and having time to relax (in other words, free time!) and having a flexible schedule that allows us to visit grandparents frequently and do things together as a family, and keeping Sundays blocked off for church and family. That means we tend to avoid signing up for things that involve dinnertime practices or that have regular Saturday events or games.

Our kids have lots of daily and weekly chores. For first and third graders, such chores might be loading the dishwasher, setting/clearing the table, taking out the trash, making lunches (and making their own breakfast), being responsible for their belongings, sweeping floors, mopping floors, taking care of a family pet’s food/water, etc. I have a chore book that outlines age appropriate chores in my webstore (only $2.99) that also gives instructions on common chores.

Bedtimes for these ages should be between 7 and 8 p.m., leaning toward earlier. They will be more tired at the start of school and kids need lots of sleep! Sleep should be a top priority, over sports and other activities. Kids who don’t get enough sleep don’t do well in school, etc.

Some elementary schools are finally seeing the wisdom of NOT assigning homework or very little homework, especially in the lower grades, but if yours isn’t one of them, then my advice is to stay out of homework as much as possible. I set an end time that homework had to be done (generally a half hour or so before the child’s bedtime), and then let the child decide when to do it. Some kids like to tackle it right away after school, while others need to play in the fresh air before their brains are able to handle more school work. If your child is struggling with homework directly after school, you might need to suggest a break before homework. Give the child space to do it, and don’t hover, etc.

One rule in our house that has served us well is that we never signed any papers or helped with any projects, etc., in the morning—that cut down on the AM chaos and also helped our kids to make sure everything was ready for the next day the night before. Yes, there have been tears when a child realized she’d forgotten to get our signature on something, but when we stood firm on that policy, the child learned not to wait until the last minute on things.

Overall, make sure your kids have plenty of free time. Play is essential to their well-being and academic success. I’d go so far as to say that free time for play is even more important than organized sports. Free play develops your child’s imagination and rejuvenates their mental and physical well-being.

A Parent’s Back To School

At the start of the school year, it’s not just the kids who face an adjustment—parents do too. From homework to teacher conference to after-school activities, this time of year can be overwhelming and chaotic.

But don’t despair—help is right around the corner! Join me, along with five other parent coaches, on Friday, Sept. 15, for A Parent’s Back to School Facebook Party, from 5:30 p.m. to 9:10 p.m. Eastern time. Here’s the lineup of topics each coach will discuss, along with giveaways and answering audience questions. Note: All times are Eastern time.

5:30 to 6 p.m. Coach introductions—the giveaways start.
6 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Parent Coach Laura Gray on Getting Your School Day Off to a Great Start
6:30 to 7 p.m. Parent Coach Susan Morley on Creating a Family Mission Statement
7 to 7:30 p.m. Parent Coach Trinity Jensen on Avoiding Homework Hassles
7:30 to 8 p.m. Parent Coach Sarah Hamaker on Scheduling Your School Year
8 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Parent Coach Liz Mallet on How to Avoid Micromanaging
8:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Parent Coach Wendy Faucett on How to Have a Great Parent-Teacher Relationship
9 to 9:10 p.m. Final thoughts.

On Friday, visit to join the fun–you can ask questions, interact with the coaches or just enjoy the party. Hope to see you all soon!


Back to School for Parents

School all over the country is either in session or about to start, which means parents are gearing up for another academic calendar year much like their children. Here are some back-to-school tips for parents.

Image courtesy of digitalart/
  1. Don’t project. Whether you loved school or hated it or fell somewhere in between, parents should try to keep their own thoughts about school to themselves, especially the first few weeks. We can’t predict how the school year will go, so encouraging a child to have an open mind is the best thing we can give them.
  2. Don’t worry. All too often, if something goes wrong the first few weeks of school, we’re off worrying about the entire year. Kids pick up on our anxiety, so stay calm and remember that the school year is long and things can turn around for your child.
  3. Remember who is going to school. Hint: It’s not you. Your child is the one who needs to learn to navigate the school, teachers, classes and homework, and your child should shoulder that responsibility.
  4. Offer guidance at a distance. Don’t get overly involved in homework, etc. Provide structure when necessary but avoid becoming essential to the task or solution to academic problems.
  5. Emphasize your expectations. I’m not talking about grades, but about the kind of student you want your child to be. We’ve always told our kids that they should not be the reason a teacher can’t teach—that they should behave in the classroom. We’ve also told them that we expect them to do their best in school, but that we realize that will look different on a report card from child to child and subject to subject.
  6. Provide support at home. Through interest in their schooling to a good place to do homework to helping them develop an inquiring mind, let them know you’re invested in their academic success.
  7. Be true to their school. Help their school succeed too by volunteering where you can, being responsive with paperwork and teacher requests, and supporting the school in the community.
  8. Encourage reading. Whether it’s a magazine or the local team’s stats in the newspaper or a book, promoting reading will help your child grow and prosper.

What else would you add to this list? How do you prepare for back to school?

Homework Hassles

Q: My 8-year-old daughter is not doing her homework by herself. I have to remind her to do it, and she is always complaining and trying to find something else to do. She can pass two hours on one line of math problems. I know that she has some difficulties, but I always have to fight or remind her to do the work. I remind her I can help her to revise her writing and math but not when I am cooking dinner and not two minutes before going to bed the night before.

It’s been that way for three years and I am sick to push her. If I don’t tell her, she will not think about the work and will not do it. I have tried for two months and no success. 

Do you have any suggestions? She is not concentrating on anything she is doing. She is bright and very talented, but she is not concentrating on anything.

Image courtesy of photostock/

A: Until she starts caring more about her homework than you do, nothing’s going to change. You can’t make her care and you can’t make her do it. However, you can make her life uncomfortable enough that she’ll decide to straighten up herself.

How to accomplish that? By moving the homework monkey off your back and onto hers. I’d start with a chat with her teacher. Tell the teacher that Daughter has not been doing her homework on her own and that you will not be helping her complete it any longer. Explain that you fully expect teacher to give Daughter the grade and enact any consequences for not completing the work—and that you will support teacher in this matter.

Then sit Daughter down and tell her that you’re sorry you’ve been too involved with her homework, that from now on, her homework is her responsibility entirely. She must have her homework done by X time each evening (at least 90 minutes before bed would be good), that you will not sign any school papers after that time, and that she can ask you one homework-related question per week.

Then step back and let her handle it. Sure, she will likely NOT do her homework…but wouldn’t you rather her learn time management and how to motivate herself when the stakes are low in elementary school? This is a problem that will only grow bigger the longer you enable her in this matter.

One further thought: One of the reasons teachers assign homework is to see what kids are learning and retaining in class. Parents who hover and correct a child’s homework until the work is done to perfection are not allowing the teacher to see what the child might be struggling with and what the child has mastered. Teachers have a pretty good idea as to what lessons might need reinforcement when children do their own homework.

Is the Pen Mightier Than a First Grader’s Attitude?

Q: My 7-year-old first grader received notice that he did not meet district standards for penmanship/writing the past two quarters on his report card. I have printed out worksheets for him to copy what direction pencil strokes should be made, but he just throws a fit and cries rather than try to work through the worksheets. We practice spelling words 15 minutes a day, five days  a week. He seems to have a laissez fair attitude about most things and seems to just not care. He is a left-handed writer. He could put more care into how he holds his pencil. He could put more effort into it. I ask him to leave a space the size of two fingers between words and he doesn’t. How can I get him to care? BTW, his reading level is ahead of his peers.

Image courtesy of kdshutterman/

A: I don’t think you’ll like this, but the short answer is you can’t get him to care about something he doesn’t want to care about. This is true of the child who is 7, 10, 15 or 26. You can’t make anyone care about something, so stop trying to make him “care.” He’s not going to, and the more you pressure him to care, the more he will dig in his heels and refuse. Save yourself some angst and quit trying to make the kid care.

Now, about that not meeting district standards. Our school system also has the same “grading” system that you refer to, and I get that you’re concerned about his “failure” to improve his handwriting. But good grief, Mom, he’s seven. He’s left-handed. He’s reading well above his peers. What more do you want from a first grader???

If you want him to begin to hate school and learning, then keep doing what you’re doing. If you want him to love school and learning, I recommend implementing the following changes pronto.

  1. Stop making him practice spelling 15 minutes every day. His time after school would be much better spent playing outside, jumping on a mini trampoline inside, reading for fun, etc. In other words, doing typical boy things (but without electronics) for most of his time at home after school. Don’t think of him as “wasting time”—there have been numerous studies that show the value of free play in a child’s overall mental, social and spatial/motor skills development. This is part of his job as a kid—to decompress, to let off steam, to figure out how the world works, so don’t deny him a good healthy dose of play each day.
  2. Let go of your expectations for “grades” at this age. It sounds like he’s doing very well overall, so please, stop harping about his handwriting! Sure, leave the handwriting worksheets around, but don’t make him do them. Again, at his age, his motor skills have probably not caught up with his brain, so forming proper letters is probably frustrating and hard for him. He’ll outgrow this—but he won’t outgrow the resentment and stress of your standing over him making him do handwriting worksheets.
  3. Get some perspective. He’s not going to fail first grade because he gets consistent low marks in handwriting. My youngest son went through the same thing in first grade and he still gets the occasional low marks related to handwriting in the third grade. While he has improved, we didn’t make it the be-all, end-all of his academic career in first grade (or second grade, or third grade…). We focused instead on helping him to care about doing his work to best of his ability, to follow the teacher’s instructions, etc. In other words, we’re more focused on ensuring he becomes a good student, not that his work receives high marks.
  4. Think of the future. Some people simply don’t have good handwriting. While penmanship is important, it’s not the most important thing your son will learn or accomplish. Think more about the kind of person you want him to be at age 30 than on the fact that he got several low marks in handwriting at the age of 7.
  5. Finally, make it fun. Last summer, I bought my son a handwriting book for boys so that he could practice on his own. Writing things like “Girls are weird” and other boy-things was fun for him. I didn’t hound him about practicing in the book, and I did catch him a time or two doing it on his own. Usually, my kids all participate in a writing club during the summer, where they spend time writing stories together. Those kind of things are low-key and provide practice in a non-academic, low-stakes atmosphere.

A Manageable Routine for a Teen

Q: I need help regarding the evening routine for my 16-year-old daughter, after she arrives home after her sport, which is usually 5 p.m., during the week. She has ADHD and says she needs to decompress when she gets home before launching into chores/homework. That has translated into procrastination on phone/computer, getting homework done too late, or maybe not completed and getting to bed too late. She doesn’t have a bedtime—as she says, “Mom, don’t you think I want to go to sleep? I will go to bed, when all my work is done.”

I want to take electronics away for a certain amount of time at night. But then she says she needs her devices to do homework. Can I make her go to bed at a particular time? She takes rigorous courses and does have a lot of work, she just doesn’t manage her time well.

Image courtesy of digitalart/

A: I can tell by your question that this is a topic that has gone round and round between you and your daughter without any changes or resolution on either side. I do have some advice, but I’m not sure it will be what you want to hear because simply put: The only person in this equation who you can change is you. But changing how you approach this will help your relationship with your daughter and help her to take full responsibility for her time. However, if you follow my advice, you might not see any improvement in the current situation, i.e., how your daughter manages her time, but you will see improvement in your own stress about the matter.

One thing to note first: We all handle transitions differently. Some of us can move smoothly from one task or situation to another, while others need mini-breaks to transition from school to home. You might see her decompression time as wasteful, but it might be what she needs to clear her brain from the school day and focus on the afternoon/night ahead.

Those disclaimers out of the way, here’s what I would do (and do with my own middle schoolers who have homework on the computer): You have an end time when everything electronic is shut down for the night, including personal devices (phones), etc. Decide on what that time will be. For the sake of this answer, we’re going with 9 p.m.

Then tell your daughter that you’re sorry you’ve been trying to manage her time for her, that you are giving that back to her. You will not be asking her about homework or what she’s doing. After she expresses her delight in this, inform her that all electronic devices (computers, laptops, tablets, phones) will be shut down (and turned in to you in the case of the portable ones) by 9 p.m. each evening. Tell her that this is a non-negotiable time. If she hasn’t managed to finish her homework or check in with her friends by 9 p.m., that’s just too bad for her.

Now, be prepared that for the first night (or the first few weeks), she will blithely ignore this and procrastinate as usual. I’d give her a 10-minute warning (maybe set a kitchen timer) at 8:50 p.m. to finish up. Then when 9 p.m. rolls around, you enforce the shut down and confiscate the devices. She will plead, beg, cajole, throw a tantrum, etc., that she “has” to finish XYZ, to which you simply shrug and act very sorry she didn’t have enough time. Remind her she can get up early the next day to finish it before school if she likes, but that’s it for tonight.

The only thing you have to do is brace yourself for the fallout and don’t cave in. The first time will be the hardest but the sky will not fall. Her grades might slip for a short period of time, but you are giving her a lesson that’s worth a few lower grades–the ability to figure out how to manage her time by herself.

A ‘Bad’ Mom’s Guide to School

The summer movie “Bad Moms” hit a chord with many mothers who feel pressure to do all and be all to their kids and families. The opening scene where Amy Mitchell (played by Mila Kunis) races around making breakfast and lunch for her kids, shepherding them to school, and handing her oldest son a huge papier-mâché bust of Nixon for his school project reminded me of how hard we moms try to do the right thing, especially when it relates to our children’s schooling. Over the course of the movie, Amy and two other fellow moms end up shedding the veneer of perfectionism and embracing the “just good enough” mantra that can keep a mom sane (but I’m not sure they full jettisoned the guilt that goes along with not doing everything for your kid).

While I could have done without so many f-bombs and other cursing, “Bad Moms” did show how difficult it can be to the be mother who’s out of step with neighborhood moms by stepping back from doing so much for her children. In the spirit of “Bad Moms,” here is how you can free yourself from the tyranny of trying to be a perfect mother.

  1. Get ‘em on the public school bus. I was frankly surprised that not one of the mom characters put their children on the bus. The school appeared to be a public school—a late scene in the movie did show school buses—yet Amy drove her children to school each morning, and picked them up each afternoon. A truly “bad” mom would make her little darlings walk to school if they lived within walking distance or ride the bus.
  1. Let ‘em make their own breakfast and lunch. Even a kindergartner can make his own breakfast and lunch, so unless you truly enjoy packing lunches, let your kids take over this task. It does help to walk through the week’s lunch menu with your children to ensure you have on hand what they need. For families with multiple children, I’ve found it helpful to post a list on the fridge with who’s making lunch when and with what fixings.
  1. Give ‘em ownership of their school belongings. It’s not your responsibility to keep track of your children’s school supplies, backpack, forms, etc., and the sooner you hand those over to your child, the sooner she will learn how to handle the items responsibly.
  1. Stop helping with homework.
    Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/
    Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/

    For me, one of the best moments in “Bad Moms” came when Amy looked at her 12-year-old son and told him that she would no longer be helping him (i.e., doing) his homework. The look of disbelief on his face was priceless, but the realization on Amy’s was even more profound as she figured out she wasn’t doing her son any favors by co-opting his work as her own. This is a tough one for parents to follow through on—this letting the child either do or not do his homework. (Later this month, I will tackle what parents should and shouldn’t do in relation to homework in my Practical Parenting e-newsletter—sign up today to get yours each Friday morning.) If we remember that the purpose of homework is to enforce what the child learned in school, then we would realize that the child should be able to do the work by himself. If he can’t, then the teacher needs to know that so she can review the material or approach it from a different angel.

These are just a few suggestions for how to get off the perfect parent merry-go-round that none of us can achieve. What are some things you’ve stopped doing for your kids lately?

When Reading is a Chore

Q: My 7-year-old first grader’s teacher has requested all parents to read with their kids every night for 20 minutes. My son complains, is distracted, doesn’t try hard and makes the time very difficult. I dread the 20 minutes every night and obviously my son is not enjoying it either. How could I approach this situation to make it more enjoyable for both of us?

A: What today’s elementary schools have failed to understand is that kids, especially boys, develop at different rates for learning to read. Some kids pick it up super easy in the preschool years, others in kindergarten. Some, however, are “late” bloomers, and for them, the pressure to read can be off-putting to say the least! (On a quick side note: some countries, like France, don’t teach reading until kids are age 7–the U.S. used to not be so pushy when it came to reading either.)

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/
Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/FreeDigital

Both of my sons didn’t “click” with reading—or like to do it themselves—until well into their seventh year. Well-meaning exercises like your son’s teacher has requested can turn reading into a chore. I’m assuming from your question that your son must read aloud to you during the 20 minutes or that it’s a combination of your reading to him and asking questions about the text. Whichever the case, you realize that this has turned into something that isn’t enjoyable for either one of you.

I think sometimes teachers (and parents too) lose sight of what’s the goal of these types of exercises. Is it to encourage a love of books and learning and reading? I suspect that it’s probably more to meet the arbitrary “learning” goals set by administrators for first graders.

So stop. Simply don’t do the exercise for a month or so. There were times when I simply let the child look at books he enjoyed for a while without watching the clock (what’s so special about 20 minutes anyway???), then I read him a book of his choosing each evening before bed.

From infancy, our goal with our kids in regards to reading had more to do with instilling a love of learning and books than actually decoding words on the page. There’s more to reading than knowing what the letters mean, and I think we’ve lost that in our rush to push kids who aren’t ready yet to do the decoding. I’d much rather raise kids who learn to read at a slower pace but who love books and learning than have kids forced to read who end up hating it.

Let your son pick the books as well or choose fun books, like the Elephant and Piggy series by Mo Williams or other similar silly picture books. Keep it simple and fun and light. There’s a slight possibility that he has a learning disability, so a conversation with his teacher while you’re taking the break from the nightly reading ritual would be good. My guess is that he’s just not ready to read and so it’s very frustrating for him. Easing off on making him read but encouraging him to enjoy books will give him breathing room while his brain matures enough to make reading easier.

5 Surefire Ways to Prepare Your Child For the Future

Over the past six months, a few parents have expressed to me their concern that their elementary school age child isn’t going to be fully ready for middle school. These parents, like most of us, want their child to succeed and to have a smooth transition to seventh grade. But what struck me as odd was what these mothers said they were doing to assist their child in making that transition: Having the child “do” extra homework each evening.

For example, one mother she assigns her son 45 minutes of additional busy work to prepare him for seventh grade, in which he’ll have more homework. Another mother lamented that her sixth grader didn’t have “enough” homework now to prepare for the significant increase in workload in middle school.

As I listened, I couldn’t help but think that more homework wasn’t the right approach to that preparation. Essentially giving a child busy work that has no other purpose except to get her acclimated to longer time spent at a desk after school will not achieve the stated aim. This type of work can easily backfire and create a child with an intense dislike of school work in general.

However, there are some ways we can assist our children in preparing for the major transition from elementary school to middle school, middle school to high school, and high school to college. Here are five alternative suggestions on how to accomplish that.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/
  1. Assign chores–and lots of them. What are these parents attempting to teach their children with the extra work? Increased responsibility. But this character trait can be learned in other ways besides more busy seat work. Give your child daily and weekly chores with an end time, rather than a start time, such as “all Saturday chores must be finished by noon. This helps a child learn how best to manage his time to accomplish those chores, plus gets him used to doing work that has a purpose and a level of satisfaction when completed.
  2. Stop checking homework. As long as you the parent are invested in a child’s homework, the child will never take full responsibility for that work. Checking the backpack for work, riding the child to complete the work, checking the work’s accuracy and completion all rob the child of managing his own homework. Elementary school is the place for a child to make mistakes, to miss assignments and to figure out how he best works (immediately after school, after dinner, in spurts, etc.). The stakes are low, so a few missed homework pages won’t hurt an overall grade, but learning that homework is his and his alone will help him embrace the added responsibility of middle school and beyond.
  3. Expect the best, not perfection. Make sure your own expectations are reasonable in relation to your child’s grades. Praise effort overall results, and help a child see beyond the grade to the learning. Don’t fawn over A’s, but also don’t melt down over C’s. Help your child see what his potential is and how to reach for it, even with a few mistakes along the way.
  4. Allow for fun, lots of it! Don’t underestimate the power of play in a child’s development. We shouldn’t be so focused on academics that we forget that kids need time to be kids, to have free play and down time. Give them that gift in elementary school, because they will need to grow up soon enough to meet the demands of being a teenager.
  5. Applaud their passion. Some kids love baseball cards, some love dinosaurs, and some love to write or do math equations. Whatever your child enjoys, help her to feed that passion with books, imagination, and space to explore new ideas. Let the child guide the amount of time and effort spent on what strikes their heart chords. It may change and fluctuate from year to year, and that’s okay. A child should have the freedom to try on many different hats and consider many different careers from the safety of her own bedroom.

Overall, keep in mind that you are preparing your child not just for the next academic level–but for life. A child who loves to read and think and imagine will be an adult who values those things too. There is more to life than homework, so let’s be sure our kids know that and embrace it, too.

Until next time