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“Do you have any homework tonight?” Does that question sound a bit familiar? If you are a concerned and loving parent, you probably ask that question almost every afternoon, and you may also secretly hope that your child will answer “no, none for tonight.” Admittedly, homework is a tough highway for our kids to travel, but the trip can be even tougher for parents. Veteran parents know from their years of experience that kids and homework can add up to a huge stress war. One parent’s comment regarding homework may connect with your stress level:  “There’s always too much homework to get done in too little time while the kid doesn’t want to do it in the first place.” So, considering the potentials for high levels of stress, how can we as parents survive the homework journey?  

 
A while back I was invited by an elementary school counselor to speak to a group of parents on the subject “Helping Our Children Learn.” As I visited with those parents and heard their tales of stress, I felt concerned and worried about their future because their journey was just beginning. How exhausted would they be eight to twelve years down the road? Would they be able to survive the journey? At the end of the workshop the evaluation feedback indicated that the material I had shared with them was both helpful and encouraging. 
 
In that parenting workshop I recommended a number of relevant resources which could be beneficial to Moms and Dads who are stressed out about homework struggles. One book in particular proved to be well-received by the listeners: Ending the Homework Hassle, written by family psychologist John Rosemond.* After giving credit to Rosemond's book I shared several ideas and tools which I had adapted for this particular setting. The material revolved around two key issues: goals and roles. As a parent what is my goal for my child’s homework experience? As a parent what is my role as a homework helper?
 
 
The first question is vitally important. What is the long-term or ultimate goal which I hope to accomplish during the homework journey? Academic success? Approval from teachers? Recognition from peers? Making me look good as a parent? All of these usually fit somewhere in the equation, but one goal is crucial:  helping my child use homework to learn and internalize core values in life. Rosemond identifies eight specific values which can be strengthened or weakened as the child does homework:  responsibility, autonomy, perseverance, time management, initiative, self-reliance, resourcefulness, and self-esteem. Through the homework experience over a twelve-year journey the child develops more of these values, or, conversely, the process is undermined as negative values emerge.
 
As a family therapist I believe that the development of these eight values suggested by Rosemond is a worthy goal for parents to pursue. Other homework goals (academic success, recognition, etc.) are secondary to the over-riding importance of those eight values. However, the degree to which homework helps in the development of those values is largely determined by the basic approach parents choose to take toward homework.
 
 
The second question is also vitally important:  what is the basic role I choose to follow as I work with my child in the homework experience? Rosemond suggests two choices: to be a “participant parent” or a “consultant parent.”
 
 
The participant parent (sometimes called the “helicopter parent”) hovers over the child as homework is done, providing frequent help and showing constant attention. Several results usually follow this over-involved approach. The parent assumes responsibility for the homework (“It’s my job to make sure that the homework is done.”). Further, the parent encourages dependence upon the parent (“You need my help.”), thereby reinforcing a sense of learned helplessness within the child. Through this hovering process the parent sends a negative message to the child (“I can’t trust you to do the homework by yourself.”), and, as a result, the child’s self-esteem and self-confidence are lowered. Basically, the participant parent over-directs, over-manages, over-controls, and is over-involved emotionally in the homework process. This parenting style reflects high interest and high involvement.
       
In contrast, the consultant parent style reflects high interest but low involvement. The parent remains available but chooses not to hover. He assigns responsibility for the homework to the child (“It’s your job to do your own homework.”). He encourages independence (“You can learn to do it on your own.”) and sends a positive message (“I trust you to do your own homework.”).
 
 
In sports terminology the participant parent is a player on the field; he gets on the field and becomes a player just like the kid. Conversely, the consultant parent does not stay on the playing field; instead, he coaches from the sidelines. Any trip onto the playing field is very brief and purposeful.
 
 
Let’s consider for a moment how these two approaches (or roles) relate to the eight core values identified by Rosemond. Which role (participant or consultant) is more likely to encourage the development of those values? Without a doubt the consultant style is more conducive to the development of the key values.
 
 
In the workshop described earlier I asked the parents, “If you choose to follow the consultant style of homework parenting, what tools could you use to fulfill that role?” In response to their uncertainty, I suggested the ABC “tool” that Rosemond describes in his book, along with several other potential solutions.
 
 
When we choose the consultant approach, we need to make certain that the child clearly understands the key components of the program. To achieve that understanding we could provide a homework orientation session for the child at the beginning of each school year. During grades K-3 we may need to have additional reviews throughout the year to reinforce the process to the child. In the orientation session we explain the overall homework process (what it is and what it is not). We describe our role as the parent, and we discuss with the child the essential elements in the ABC approach.
 
 
The letter “A” stands for “all by myself.” We explain to the child that the homework is NOT a family affair but rather an individual activity. With that in mind we place the child in a safe, self-contained, comfortable area with the appropriate resources (table, chair, lamp, supplies, etc.), and we tell the child, “This is where you do your homework—by yourself.”
 
 
The “B” refers to “back off.” After getting the child started, we leave and go about our activities. We have already explained in the orientation session that it’s the child’s responsibility to come to us if he has a question or needs specific help. As parents, we ask no unnecessary questions, we do not check on the child, and we do not “help” the child unless he asks for help.  We provide help only to get the child unstuck or to critique and check specific homework that has been completed. Any help provided needs to be brief, encouraging, and unemotional. We avoid the negative pattern of getting into emotionally-charged exchanges with the child.
 
 
The “C” means “call it quits.”  In the orientation session and at the first of each homework session we explain to the child that homework has both a starting time and an ending time (just like classes at school). A timer is set and the homework session is terminated when the timer goes off, even if the child’s homework is not completed. The child understands that he will earn specific positive or negative consequences depending upon the successful completion of the homework during the allotted time. The child is motivated to do his homework if he knows from experience that his efforts will earn him the right to certain activities later in the evening (television, video games, telephone time, etc.). In essence, the child is trained to earn and to maintain his preferred “standard of living.” The negative consequence of uncompleted homework involves the loss of key features of his standard of living for the evening. The time limit is enforced by the parents with a few possible exceptions (special projects, major tests, etc.) in which a longer time period is chosen. This time-limited approach encourages the development of time management skills which the child needs at school for taking exams or for completing other time-oriented tasks. The enforcement of an “ending time” assures that the child will have time after homework for personal play and/or for family activities.
 
 
Many children who have been in school for several years may have already developed poor homework habits that are not working well. In spite of that reality many kids will resist a new program introduced by the parents even if the new approach appears helpful. So, if you try to begin the ABC model with your older child, don’t be too surprised to find that things may seem to get worse before they get better. Just be determined—and be consistent! Connect the homework process to the child’s standard of living and your child will eventually cooperate with you to protect and to maintain his preferred lifestyle.
 
 
The ABC approach will work well with the majority of kids, assuming that the parents explain the program clearly to the child and that they follow the program consistently. However, parents need to consider the reality that a few kids have unique needs due to the presence of a specific Learning Disability, ADHD/ADD, Autism, Asperger’s, or another medical condition which certainly affects the learning process. If a parent tries the ABC approach and finds that the process does not work effectively, and if he suspects that one or more of the conditions mentioned above might be present, he would do well to get some assessment and testing completed by an appropriate professional to determine whether or not the child in question has some type of learning problem.
 
 
In summary, well-intentioned and highly-interested parents usually stress out over homework issues because they are following the participant-parent style. Their over-involvement creates tension within the homework process, and both the child and the parent will remain quite frustrated. The resulting homework journey will undoubtedly be a long and tough ordeal for the entire family.
 
 
Conversely, the consultant-parent style places the responsibility for homework on the child where it belongs. The “coaching-from-the-sidelines” approach encourages the development of positive core values within the child. The ABC model provides a practical tool which will help parents to implement the consultant-parent style. Once the child “gets the hang” of the homework process utilizing these consultant components, he will develop a sense of personal competence and self-confidence that will serve him well throughout his educational pursuits. Additionally, the family avoids constant homework tension and can therefore focus upon issues and activities that are important to the development of the family as a whole. Everyone in the family emerges as a winner in the homework war!
 
 
If you are a parent who is currently stressed out about homework issues, I encourage you to consider the suggestions offered in this brief article. As a parent you’re involved daily in a vitally important venture: training and equipping children for adulthood. I compliment you for your interest and your efforts, and I wish you the very best in the journey ahead.
  



 
 
*Rosemond, John (1990). Ending the Homework Hassle. New York:  Andrew and McMeel.  To examine or to purchase this book just click on Amazon.com.



VIDEO:  To view a three-minute television video clip in which Dr. Baker was interviewed about “Parents and Homework Stress,” you can click here.

 

 
 
 
For information about other helpful parenting materials you can check out the Resources section of this website. Look under Resources/List of Resources/Parenting and scroll down to the “Helping our Children Learn” and the On-line Resources sections. Materials dealing with ADHD can be found at Resources/List of Resources/ADHD.

 
 
                                                                                                   (Parenting PC#401)
 
 
 
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