Please sit down. Get your pencil. No, you can’t use pen. I need you to focus. Yes, you can sharpen your pencil. Okay, go to the bathroom—quickly. You need to go back and wash your hands. And flush. Now, please sit down. You need your pencil. Did you seriously just break your pencil…?
This is the homework dance I do with my 1st grader everyday after school. It’s our least favorite time together. On the car ride home, she joyfully tells me which boys chased her on the playground, who was assigned the coveted position of line leader for the day and who “moved their clip down”—the disciplinary equivalent of spending a day in the stockades. When we get home, she skips into the house, hugs the cat and singsongs, “Can I go play outside?”
“Yes—after you do your homework.”
And with that my good-natured 7-year-old transforms into a depressed, apathetic sloth of a child. Dress her in a black Morrissey T-shirt and she could easily be mistaken for a 50-inch package of pure teenage angst. She suddenly loses the ability to read. Her spine can no longer support the weight of her body. Watching her write her name on her paper is like watching someone try to put toothpaste back in the tube. And this is a child who excels in school—who likes school.
“I’m just so tired,” she complains.
Ah, yes, the complex life of a first grader. At her complaint I want to launch into a diatribe on taxes, mortgages and why-oh-why can’t Daddy unload the dishwasher, but instead I resist the urge knowing that it’s not about me—when dealing with a 7-year-old, it is and probably won’t be again for the rest of my life.
Contrary to her claim, she’s not tired. If I set her loose outside, she’d do wind sprints for the next two hours, her jacket billowing in the wind like a resistance parachute. No, she’s tired of listening. Of obeying. Of working. But guess what? The compensation for unemployed 7-year-olds is hovering right around the worth of a stale animal cracker with broken legs. So let’s get back to work.
That said, I don’t want to become the Southern equivalent of a “Dragon Mom” (would that be an “Alligator Mom?”). I want my child to have a healthy relationship with homework, and by extension, me.
This year I’ve learned a couple of lessons about making the homework experience slightly bearable.
Set the mood.
Imagine being woken up in the morning with your boss standing over your bed demanding that you draft a report in the next five minutes. Everyone needs some transition time. After a whirlwind day of school, my daughter needs a few minutes to get settled—time to take off her shoes and enjoy a snack—instead of me greeting her at the door with pencil and paper in hand.
Make it (relatively) fun.
This is a little bit like making a visit to the dentist seem like a visit from Santa, but there are ways. I’ll line up her collection of Barbies to illustrate mathematic equations and I’ll play-act the stories we read to the embarrassment of SAG members everywhere.
Let it go.
Sort of. It’s homework, not a scholarship application to Harvard. If she writes, “The buney hops akros the rode,” I don’t need to go into hypercorrect mode—a particular challenge to an English major, or really anyone who has respect for the English language. If she wants to do her homework on her own, so be it. And, in the end, if we’re running into minute 40 of what should be a 5-minute worksheet, I’ve learned to calmly walk away and in my best passive-aggressive tone say, “That’s fine. Tomorrow when you go to school you can explain to your teacher that you didn’t want to do it.”
Luckily, she doesn’t call my bluff. If she did, I’d be completing her homework with my left hand at midnight. Instead, she grabs her pencil (finally!) and buckles down.
Like potty training and discipline, the best approach to homework differs from child to child. You have to know what motivates your child and use it to your advantage. And most important, stick with it.
One year down, 17 to go.