Ending the Battles over Homework

My son entered sixth grade this year, and he’s been very appropriately exploring who he is in relation to the many new freedoms and responsibilities that come with middle school.

It’s new territory for me, too, and it’s not always easy to know what is his business and what is mine as the boundaries change and expand.

After a pretty nasty fight over his choice of breakfast one morning, I realized that what he ate was no longer my business. (Actually, it really never was my business in the first place, but I sometimes forget that).

My business is what kind of food I purchase and make available in our kitchen. His business is to select from those options, or to choose ‘none of the above’ if he feels so inclined, and go to school and spend his allowance at the vending machine.

So after school I apologized for the way the day had started, and told him that I realized I’d been interfering in his business, and that I’d do my best to stay out of it in the future. He looked at me with such tenderness, and said, “It’s okay, Mom. I know it’s hard for you to get out of my business, because after all you’ve been in it my whole life!”

So it’s a constant balancing act, but I thought I was doing pretty well with it. And then I received a rather scathing email from his dad telling me that our son had not been completing his homework assignments in a timely fashion, and asking why he had not done any work on these long term projects while he was at my house.

He requested that I go through his backpack each night and look at all his papers, checking for due dates and then making sure he stayed on schedule.

Although it seemed to be a logical intervention, something about it was disturbing to me. I didn’t want to do it. I hated the idea of taking over something that I thought was well within the realm of self-responsibility for a sixth grader.

My instinct told me to let my son learn from his own experience what happens when homework isn’t completed on time. But I didn’t want to drop the ball, either. I just wasn’t sure where my responsibility as a parent fell in this situation.

Or more accurately, I had been sure until I got that email, and then I looked around and realized that I really didn’t know this territory, and what if I was lost?

Being the sort of person who loves to gather information and input whenever I’m in a quandary, I decided to contact my son’s teachers, feeling fairly confident that they’ve seen things like this before. If they said it would serve him for me to take over managing his homework, then I would do it, no matter how much the idea repulsed me.

Thankfully, they did not. Instead they fully supported my instinct to let him learn by experiencing the consequences of his choices, even if it meant watching his grades slip while he fumbled to grasp the connection.

One teacher even loaned me her personal copy of the Love and Logic tape called Winning the Homework Battle by Foster Cline and Jim Fay. And that’s what restored my confidence in my instincts.

I’d read their book Parenting with Love and Logic many years ago, and loved their assertion that parents should stay out of the choice/consequence feedback loop as much as possible.

The hallmark example of their philosophy in action is letting a child go out into the cold without a proper jacket. There’s a big difference between your child choosing a jacket next time based on her previous experience of shivering vs. wearing a coat because mom said she couldn’t go out without it.

One is an authentic, repeatable, and sustainable inner awareness of choice and consequence, and the other is compliance with an external authority who must then be present for the desired behavior to occur in the future. I don’t know about you, but I plan to be out of the loop someday, so I’d much prefer intrinsic awareness as a motivator for my kids, and the sooner the better!

The tape was such a timely reminder—so clear about what was my problem and what was my son’s, and confirmed what I have seen over and over to be true: there are very few things that I can really and truly MAKE my child do.

I can’t MAKE him eat, I can’t MAKE him be nice, and I can’t MAKE him do his homework. So what can I do?

I can put nourishing food on the table, and share my enjoyment while eating it. I can be nice to him, and to others in front of him, and hope he decides that it feels good and he’d like to be that way, too.

And I can clear off the table after dinner, light a candle, sharpen the pencils, and sit down to balance my checkbook or write a letter during family study time, and invite him to take that opportunity to complete his homework.

The rest is up to him.

The tape was chock full of gems, some of which brought me to tears. Cline and Fay relate several personal stories from their experiences as parents, as well as their own childhoods. A particularly relevant story was shared by Foster Cline, who had a learning disability as a child (back in the days before special ed) and regularly brought home report cards filled with D’s and F’s.

His father would ask him every time if he was proud of his report card, and he would say ‘no, sir.’ To which his father would reply ‘Good! I’m glad to hear that!’ and then sign off on it. There would be no further discussion.

In about 9th grade he grew out of his disability, and went on to become an MD who is very highly regarded today for his extensive knowledge about parenting, among other things. He attributes his success to confidence in himself and his abilities, which was never shaken by his parents, who made a very conscious and deliberate choice to celebrate his strengths and overlook his areas of ‘weakness’.

Cline and Fay refer to studies which conclude that grades simply do not correlate to success in adult life as measured by financial standards or intellectual contributions made to society. What does correlate is how well the individual knows and draws upon their areas of competence, and how capable they feel themselves to be.

Which brings me back to homework. If I rummage through my son’s backpack and then sit down and monitor the completion of his homework, what message am I sending to him? Maybe that I don’t think he’s capable of taking care of this part of his life.

And that is not a message that I want to deliver. So instead, with the help of this tape, I’m hanging back. I’m telling him that I’m aware that he’s having a problem with homework, but that I know he can come up with a solution, and to let me know if there’s any way I can be helpful.

One of my favorite stories on the tape took place when one of their sons decided to test out his freedom to do some, all, or none of his homework. For 13 days in a row, he chose to do none of it. At that point his father said, “So son, it looks like you’ve chosen not to do any of your homework. Is that correct?” And his son grinned and said “Yep, that’s right.”

To which his father replied (using a tried and true Love and Logic phrase), “No problem! I checked with the folks up at the school, and they assured me that they offer 5th grade every year. So anything that you miss from not doing homework this year, you can just pick up by repeating 5th grade next year!” and walked away.

And what do you know, very soon after that, his son of his own accord decided he’d do some homework. And although he did just enough to get by, he did not need to experience 5th twice.

There’s so much on this tape, and the other materials available at www.loveandlogic.com, that rather than go on and on about it I’d just like to highly recommend all of their work. They’ve done a terrific job, so there’s no need for me to reinvent the wheel.

I realize that this is potentially a very controversial approach to parenting. All I can tell you is that I’ve seen it work better than anything else in my own family. So maybe, if like me you feel frustrated and overwhelmed with the old model of parenting, and you are looking for another way, you might want to check it out.