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The Homework Monster – Scary for You and Bad for Your Kid’s Health Too

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HW 1 When I was a kid, the “homework rule” was fairly straightforward – my parents wanted me to be done before dinner, which gave me some leeway when I came home from school. Usually I had a quick snack or maybe watched a little TV, but then I went to my room and got to work. When I was done I’d bring my books to the kitchen. Mom looked them over briefly and then signed each assignment. This was the beginning and end of her involvement. If I got something wrong or skipped something on my homework pad, she wouldn’t have known the difference, and it was I who would then suffer the consequences when the teacher dealt with me the next day.

Today it is a different world when it comes to homework. What used to be something we just did ourselves as kids has now morphed into a green-eyed monster (apologies to Shakespeare) which doth mock the meat it feeds upon (namely you and your kids). This Homework Monster becomes increasing more fearsome as your kids get older and you become the substitute teacher on the spot. When the subject is either unfamiliar or difficult for you, it is hard to tell your child that you don’t understand it either and a very stressful situation can result for all.

In the past homework always “counted” in some vague way, but even the teacher might have not been able to tell us how. She or he would put a check on top of the paper and that was about it. To this day I am not sure how checks added up toward my grade, but if I was missing homework I knew it had to be made up in order to get that check or else. I never discovered the “or else” part because I always did it.

These days homework has become such an integral part of the equation, with teachers explaining percentages toward a final grade. Students bring home either a number grade on homework or letter grades, and this adds particular weight to these assignments. Having children in middle school and Kindergarten, I am amazed as to how much homework both have. Perhaps I should qualify that – truthfully, I am not shocked by the quantity but more by how long it takes for them to complete the work each night.

In Kindergarten there is no choice but for the parent to sit down and do the work with the child. This is a given; however, in the seven years since my daughter was in Kindergarten, the playing field has changed considerably. Now there are book reports in Kindergarten and more academic homework that challenges the child (and thus the parent). If you get home late from work and are just sitting down to do the homework near bedtime, the issue becomes exacerbated by the normal sleepiness of a five-year-old at that time.

As for my middle school kid, there are literally hours of homework. She is very independent, but sometimes hits a road bump or two. There is no question that there seems to be a heavy volume of work that needs to be done; however, when kids are in middle school they are also involved in extracurricular activities as is mine. Dance classes, piano lessons, swimming, soccer, Girl Scouts, and gymnastics all need to be fit into the schedule, and after an hour or two of one of these activities, sitting down to homework is not the easiest thing to accomplish.

In “Is Homework Making Your Child Sick?” CNN contributor Amanda Enayati takes a sensible look at the too much homework complaint of many parents. She examines the one side, where a parent complains about feeling like “a drill sergeant,” and the other one where some parents felt there was not enough homework.

Enayati reveals some startling truths regarding children’s health and homework overload. She cites the work of Denise Pope, co-author of a study in The Journal of Experimental Education, that examined a sample of 4,317 students in high performing schools who averaged 3 hours of homework per night. While these students did well academically, it came at a price – “academic stress, physical health problems, and a lack of balance in their lives.” 56% of the students in the survey said that they felt homework negatively impacted their lives and their health.

It seems incongruous that some parents, even when their children have sufficient homework, demand more work from teachers and also go out and buy additional workbooks and materials to push their children even more. As an educator I have seen this happen often enough, particularly in the lower grades where smaller amounts of homework are usually given. I have even overheard parents saying something like, “If you don’t get an “A” on this test, I’m sending you to Kumon.” Now, I have nothing against after school study programs such as this because they may help some struggling children, but using that as “incentive” seems more like a threat that can cause children great stress.

Every school and district has its own guidelines for homework, but in my experience usually you start with ten or fifteen minutes of homework in Kindergarten and then have that go up incrementally through the grades. By the time a student reaches 8th grade it is not unusual for that student to have about 90 minutes of homework per night, but that should also include reading and studying. If students need three hours or more to complete the written portion of their homework, we can rightfully question how they are expected then to study for tests and read content or even do some reading for pleasure.

HW 3Of course, I have heard some parents say that my child doesn’t have to participate in all the extracurricular activities. This year we have actually cut back on some things because my daughter needs more time for her schoolwork, but I can see how it can become emotionally and physically draining. I worry all the time about her getting enough sleep, but sometimes the pressure of a test the next day makes that impossible. There are times when I am tempted to say, “If you get a B it’s almost as good as an A” but I know that in the real academic world that is far from true; however, if her health is at stake that is another matter entirely.

We as parents should aim for some sort of middle ground. Of course, we understand that homework is an essential component as reinforcement to the day’s teaching, but I cannot tell you how many times as a school principal that I heard the same complaint from parents: “My child says that the homework was not even taught in class yet.” You know how they say where there is smoke there is fire, so when I heard this enough times I knew there was something going on and had to get involved.

My own children are under a little bit of pressure knowing that I am an educator. There is also pressure that I put on myself for I want them to succeed and feel tempted to intervene, but it is sort of a Spider Man dilemma to be sure (with great power comes great responsibility). So while I really would like to “edit” my daughter’s essays when I see glaring mistakes, I stop myself from doing so. Instead, I may say something like, “Are you sure your punctuation is correct?” or “Have you checked the spelling carefully?” This sends up a red flag that I hope will help her find the errors on her own.

HW 4Still, there is another philosophy – allowing our kids to sink or swim on their own just as most of us did years ago. We parents have to forget about facing off against the Homework Monster and let our children do their homework (and the emphasis is on “do”) themselves. This “sink or swim” philosophy can work if we are brave enough, but we are reticent to let this happen because we love our kids and want them to succeed. We are also reliving our own childhoods (and sometimes negative academic experiences) as we see them struggling or bringing home a bad grade. We want to keep them from the pain we may have had, but maybe a poor grade here and there is the inspiration necessary to get them to work harder on their own.

While I do support the concept of homework and believe it is important, I would think that parents, students, teachers, and administrators should all want homework to be meaningful in context of what is being taught. If it is out of line with what is being taught – a sort of read the chapter yourself and answer the questions kind of thing as I have sometimes heard – then something is wrong with that picture. Some teachers have even admitted to me (off the record, of course) that parents complained so much about wanting more homework that they just threw all this extra work at the kids. That practice can never be acceptable to anyone no matter what the motivation.

Most parents and teachers want the best for their kids, and the best is an appropriate amount of homework that is reinforcement and not overkill. There also needs to be realization that children have other lives outside of school and need time for sports, the arts, and good old relaxation. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a kid coming home and having a snack after school and maybe even watching a little TV before starting his or her homework. I did that every day after school, and it all turned out okay in the end.

Most of all we adults need to be sure that our children do well in school, but never at the expense of their emotional or physical health. Teachers and administrators should work with parents and never be openly opposed to each other in any school related matters, for the children are always aware of these kinds of things and it is detrimental to their overall progress.

HW 2Homework is nothing to get crazy over; it is just a small part of a bigger academic picture, and a well-rounded person is what we want each child to become, not someone overcome by despair by the thought of getting homework done for the next day. If kids are getting literally sick from the Homework Monster, then we have to seriously consider ways to stop it in its tracks before it does irreparable damage.

Most of all we have to allow children time to be kids, for enjoying other activities and creative playtime while they are young enough to engage in it. We all want our kids to do well in school, but success is only something to celebrate if it comes the right way. Kids need to be healthy enough to appreciate these most wonderful years of their lives, and we parents along with our schools have an obligation to make sure that this is a reality for all students.

Photo credits: isertope.com; wikipedia; dorkdiaries.com; sausd.com

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charley Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.
  • Dr Joseph S Maresca

    Homework is conceptually similar to the saying “practice makes perfect”. The intent is to apply what was learned in the classroom in different contexts including the famous “critical thinking” problem sets. A good teacher will spend time on both the theory and applications. Sometimes, teachers allow students to begin homeworks before the period ends.

    The ideal homework period each night may vary; however, a reasonably prepared student should do at least an hour of homework and sometimes two. More time for homework can be allotted on weekends. Mid-terms, final exams, term projects and book reports are yet another dimension to the time allotted for homeworks.

    The education hierarchy has compounded this problem of after hours work with mandatory preparation routines for the ELA and Math exams, as well as, preparation later on for Regents exams and the SAT preparation. Some of this testing can get to be excessive and limits should be considered to relieve the system of the bottlenecks which occur from too much reliance on test-taking.

    Besides, the most relevant statistic at the end of the day is the progress each student has made and not necessarily the passing of a particular test.

    There is another problem. The system itself is too academically oriented when a considerable constituency of students are better suited for the trades. The academic regimen is appropriate for all up to the tenth grade. Thereafter, students should specialize in either academics or a trade-based education.

    Academically inclined students should go to college while students who study the trades should be ready for careers as electricians, plumbers,solar energy installation specialists, cell phone repair, boiler repair, auto mechanics and a plethora of other endeavors including franchises and small business.

  • Victor Lana

    Denise Pope says, “There is no correlation between homework and academic achievement in elementary school.” I am not sure that I agree with her completely, but I think HW has become something it was never intended to be – even in the early grades. Too much HW proves nothing except that the teacher can assign lots of work and make some parents happy and some miserable.

    What Dr. Maresca says about options in high school is on target. Years ago a NYC kid going into 9th grade could choose to go to a vocational or academic high school. These options are limited today, and the addition of charter schools has only complicated the matter more (even though they have proven to be smaller and more successful in some cases).

    Parents and their kids need more choices in education, not less. That is how the system is failing them especially in NYC.

  • Dr Joseph S Mares a

    I would like the school system to implement the earlier model which worked well for many millions of students over the years. That is an academic regimen through the first year or so of high school and a choice between academics or a trade thereafter.