With less than an hour to go before my seven-year-old daughter’s bedtime, my home was a long way from being the oasis of calm I was hoping for at that time of evening.
Instead Lily had just scribbled all over her homework worksheet, thrown her pencil on the floor and was now yelling at the top of her voice: ‘I hate Math. I suck at it.’
With my younger daughter to put to bed, Lily in a melt-down and me exhausted after a day at work, the tension was rapidly rising.
But even if I could calm ourselves down, there was no end in sight. Even if I could persuade her to finish her math homework, Lily still had the whole book reading to do.
So I was facing two choices –
Should I stand over her and insist that not doing homework was NOT an option?
Or, should I tell her to put the books away, write a note to her teacher and just let her unwind and play in the lead-up to bedtime?
Have you been there? What choice would you make?
The choice I would make now is very different to what my choice would have been a few years back.
Back then, I’d try to push through with a mixture of cajoling and prompting and assurances that she did know how to do her Math really.
If that didn’t work then maybe in despair and frustration that she didn’t seem to want to try, I would have got angry and tried to explain how serious I was about this.
A Game of One-Upmanship
Like every parent, I had started out assuming I was simply doing the very best for my child by making sure her work was as good as it could be.
After all, what choice did I have? From the very early days in the private nursery she attended, I found myself surrounded by lots of other mothers locked into the same race to make their children the brightest and the best.
As Lily got older, I came to learn how insidiously contagious pushy parenting is.
If one of the mothers spotted another a parent with a Kumon Math folder, we all rushed to sign up too – for fear our children would get left behind.
Neurosis underpinned every conversation at the school gates – particularly as all of us were aiming to get our children into a small handful of selective private schools in the area.
Bit by bit, the parenting journey which had started off being so exciting and rewarding, was turning into a stressful game of one-upmanship.
But children are not products to be developed and put on show to reflect well on us.
Depending on what happens on the night, every child is conceived with a unique combination of genes which also maps out their strengths, weaknesses and personality traits before they are even born.
Lily may have been bred into a competitive hotbed. But as an innately modest and sensitive child, she decided she did not want to play.
The alarm bells started ringing in Grade Three when, after I personally made sure she turned in the best Space project, she won the prize. While I applauded uproariously from the sidelines, Lily, then seven, fled the room in tears and refused to accept the book token from the Head.
When she calmed down, she explained she hated us making a fuss. But what is just as likely is that she disliked the fact that her successes had become as much ours as hers. Even at that young age, no doubt she also realized that the more she succeeded, the more pressure she would be under to keep it up.
Over the next few years, the issues only deepened.
The Problem of Not Doing Homework
Slowly, Lily started to find excuses for not doing homework. Our home started to become a battlefield. She would barely open her books before yelling: “I’m stuck” –when really she was just terrified of getting it wrong.
The increasing amounts of homework sent home by the school gradually turned our house into a war zone – with me as the drill sergeant.
Homework is one of the most common flash points between kids and parents – the crossroads at which academic endeavors meet parental expectations at close quarters – and behind closed doors.
Surveys have found that homework is the single biggest source of friction between children and parents. One survey found that forty per cent of kids say they have cried during rows over it. Even that figure seems like a dramatic underestimate.
Yet more and more, it is recognized that homework undermines family time and eats into hours that should be spent on play or leisure.
A straightforward piece of work that would take a child twenty minutes at school can easily take four times as long at home with all the distractions and delaying tactics that go with it.
As a result, children get less sleep, go to bed later and feel more stressed.
Homework has even started to take over the summer vacations.
Once the long break was seen as a chance for children to have adventures, discover themselves and explore nature. Now the summer months are viewed as an extension of the academic year – a chance for kids to catch up… or get ahead with workbooks and tutoring.
But ultimately homework abides by the law of diminishing returns.
Researchers at Duke University found that after a maximum of two hours of homework, any learning benefits rapidly start to drop off for high school students.
While some children will do everything to avoid doing it, at the other extreme others will become perfectionists who have to be persuaded to go to bed. Some moms I spoke to had to bribe their children to do less!
Given the cloud of anxiety hovering over them, no wonder some of these children perceive education as stressful.
Pushed to the Brink
Perhaps fewer parents would go down the path of high performance parenting if they realized how much resentment it creates in their children. The irony is that all this obsession with pushing our kids towards success, pushes away the very people we are trying to help.
While all of us would say we love our children no matter what, unfortunately that’s not the message our kids hear. Instead, children become angry when they feel we are turning them into passive projects. Rather than feel like they are disappointing us, they disconnect. Early signs may be they become uncommunicative after school, stop looking parents in the eye, secretive or avoidant.
But we need to remember that unhappy stressed kids don’t learn.
Over the next few years, Lily’s insistence on not doing homework kept getting worse. To try and get to the bottom of it, my husband Anthony and I took her to see educational psychologist who found strong cognitive scores and no signs of learning difficulties.
But what the report did identify was how profoundly Lily’s self-worth had been affected. Even though I had never once told her she should be top of the class, she still felt she had to be good at everything. If she couldn’t be, she didn’t think there was any point trying at all.
It was clear despite our best efforts to support her, Lily constantly felt criticized. She was becoming defensive and resentful.
Most serious of all, by claiming she couldn’t do her homework – when she could – she was testing if my love for her was conditional on her success.
I had to face up to the painful truth that unless I took immediate action – and killed off my inner Tiger Mom – my child and I were growing apart.
So for the sake of my daughter, I realized I had to change direction and take my foot off the gas.
When her tutor rang to tell me Lily needed a break, I was delighted to agree. Since then, I have let her focus on the subjects that really matter to her – art and music – and have let her decide what direction to take them in.
I also made a deliberate effort to spend time with Lily – just the two of us – so we can simply “be” together. Now instead of trips to the museums and classical concerts, we go for walks in the park and hot chocolates.
The Difficult Journey Back
Unfortunately, over the years, an inner critic had grown up inside Lily’s head that kept telling her she was not good enough. I realized I needed to take quite deliberate steps to address that if she was to be happy with herself again.
To help her recognize and dismiss the voice that was bringing her down, I took her to see a Neuro-Linguistic Programming coach who teaches children strategies to untangle the persistent negative thoughts that undermine their self-belief – and replace them with positive ones.
Before we began, Jenny explained that Lily’s issues are not uncommon. As a teacher of 30 years experience, Jenny believes the growing pressure on children to perform from an early age is contributing to a general rise in learning anxiety. The youngest child she has helped was six.
It’s children like Lily, who don’t relish a contest, who are among the biggest casualties.
At home, some have been made to feel they are not good enough by parents or are intimidated by more academic sisters and brothers. Some may develop an inferiority complex simply because they are born into high-achieving families.
Once established, failure can also become self-reinforcing. Even when they get good marks, children like Lily still dwell on the pupil who got the higher one to support their negative views of their abilities, making it a self-perpetuating downward spiral.
It’s when children start to see this self-criticism as fact that the negative self-talk can start.
As she sat on the sofa, Jenny asked Lily if she had ever heard a nagging voice in her head that put her down. Lily looked surprised but answered that yes, she had. Asked who it was, my daughter replied: “It’s me, but the mean me.”
Asked to draw this character, Lily depicted an angry, disapproving female figure with her hands on her hips, with a mouth spouting the words “blah, blah, blah.” When asked to name her, Lily thought for a moment before coming up with the name Miss Trunch-Lily, so-called because the figure is half herself – and half the hectoring teacher from Roald Dahl’s Matilda.
Now Miss Trunch-Lily had been nailed, Jenny and Lily agreed an easy way to deal with her would be to talk back and tell her “Shut up, you idiot” one hundred times.
But that would take a long time, so Lily and Jenny came up with a quicker solution; imagining a canon which would instantly send a shower of 60 candies into her mouth so she couldn’t say another word.
Next time Lily heard her nagging voice, all she had to do was press an imaginary button and her nemesis would be silenced.
In the months that followed, Lily seemed to relax. Gradually the procrastination about homework started to vanish – and Lily was much more likely to open her books after school and quietly get on with her homework.
A Fresh New Start
We have recently come back from a week in a seaside cottage with no Internet or phone signal. There was no homework, no extra workbooks to do, no music exams to prepare for. Nor did we use our vacation as a catch-up period to prepare the girls to get ahead.
Instead my husband, my daughters and I went on long walks with our dog. We examined different types of seaweed and examined crabs in rock pools.
Back in the cottage, we sat around and read books that interested us. I let the children play upstairs for hours, not on their phones, but in long elaborate role-plays, without feeling the need to interrupt once.
I would wager that Lily and Clio learnt more about themselves – and what they are capable of – in a single week than in a whole semester at their schools where they hardly get a moment to stop and think.
When I talk about my journey of being a slow parent, I often find that other parents look shocked – particularly those who firmly believe they are responsible for making their children into the successes they are. So, I shared my journey in the book Taming the Tiger Parent: How to put your child’s well-being first in a competitive world.
Of course, for the child born with a go-getting personality, teaming up with turbo-charged parents can be a winning combination – to start with at least.
But as adults, we have to start asking – how high we can raise the bar before it’s too high for our children to jump?
After all, a bigger picture is also emerging: a rise in anxiety disorders, depression and self-harm among children who have grown up with this continual pressure – and the emergence of a generation who believe they are losers if they fail, they’ve never done enough if they win.
Even among children who succeed in this environment, educationalists are finding pushy parenting creates a drive towards perfectionism which can turn into self-criticism when these young people can’t live up to such high standards.
I’m happy that in the midst of this arms race to push our kids more and more, there are changes afoot. Around the world, parents and educators are drawing up a blue-print for an alternative.
Whether it’s slow parenting, minimalist parenting, free-range parenting – or the more bluntly named Calm the F*** Down parenting, there is recognition that we need to resist the impulse to constantly push and micro-manage.
As a mother to Lily, as well as my younger daughter, Clio, I’ve decided I don’t want to be a part of all those crushing burdens of expectations. I want to provide a relief from it.
Apart from the fact it makes children happier, it’s also so much more fun.
Now I love the fact that when Lily messes around in the kitchen making cupcakes, I no longer have to fight the urge to tell her to hurry up – and badger her to finish her homework.
Of course, not doing homework is not an option – but these days in our house the aim is to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. If a concept is not understood, I don’t pull my hair out trying to be the teacher and trying to play ‘catch-up’. If Lily, now 12, genuinely does not understand it, I write a note to the member of the staff to explain that it may need further explanation. It’s a simple system and is working perfectly fine for us.
I like it that when she comes home from school, and I ask her, ‘How are you?’ I really mean it. It’s no longer code for: ‘What marks did you get today, darling?’ and I’m not thinking ‘Hurry up with your answer, so we can get on with your homework.’
Most of all I love the fact that I can finally appreciate Lily for the person she is now– a 12-year-old girl with an acerbic sense of humor who likes Snoopy, play-dates and kittens – and not for the person I once wanted her to be.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
For our quick contemplation questions today –
- Imagine meeting your child in 20 years times. Ask them to describe their childhood. Do they describe it as magical? Or do they look back on it as a race from one after school activity and homework project to the next?
- Ask yourself what do you want for your children? When you say you want your children to be happy, what has that come to mean to you? If you really analyze it, has it drifted into being interpreted as professional success and financial acumen? Furthermore, have you come to judge success by a very narrow definition of traditional career achievement and earning power?
- Now check again. If you look around you, what do the happiest people you know have in common? Is it material goods, high-flying jobs and academic qualifications? Or is it emotional balance? If you approach the question another way, are the wealthiest people you know also the most satisfied with life?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Spend some time sorting through any conflicts related to your kids not doing homework.
To start with, train your children in good habits and place time limits on how long homework should take from the start.
Ask the school how long a child should spend on each subject at night. Then you can help keep those limits in place by telling kids they can’t spend a minute more – or a minute less – than the allotted time.
Find the time of the day after school that works best for your child – either straight after arriving home or after a short break. Agree a start time every day so that the rule turns into a routine and there is less room for resistance and negotiation.
Don’t finish their homework for kids because you are desperate to get it off the evening’s to-do list. That will just mask the problem and get you dragged into a nightly conflict. Help them instead to take responsibility for their homework, while you provide guidance from the sidelines on an on-need basis.
The Homework Battle: How to Get Children to Do Homework
By Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
Parents often feel it’s their job to get their kids to do well in school. Naturally, you might get anxious about this responsibility as a parent. You might also get nervous about your kids succeeding in life—and homework often becomes the focus of that concern. But when parents feel it’s their responsibility to get their kids to achieve, they now need something from their children—they need them to do their homework and be a success. I believe this need puts you in a powerless position as a parent because your child doesn’t have to give you what you want. The battle about homework actually becomes a battle over control. Your child starts fighting to have more control over the choices in his life, while you feel that your job as a parent is to be in control of things. So you both fight harder, and it turns into a war in your home.
The truth is, you can’t make him care. Instead, focus on what helps his behavior improve. Don’t focus on the attitude as much as what he’s actually doing.
Over the years, I’ve talked to many parents who are in the trenches with their kids, and I’ve seen firsthand that there are many creative ways kids rebel when it comes to school work. Your child might forget to do his homework, do his homework but not hand it in, do it sloppily or carelessly, or not study properly for his test. These are just a few ways that kids try to hold onto the little control they have. When this starts happening, parents feel more and more out of control, so they punish, nag, threaten, argue, throw up their hands or over-function for their kids by doing the work for them. Now the battle is in full swing: reactivity is heightened as anxiety is elevated—and homework gets lost in the shuffle.The hard truth is that you cannot make your children do anything, let alone homework. Instead, the idea is to set limits, respect their individual choices and help motivate them to motivate themselves.
You might be thinking to yourself, “You don’t know my child. I can’t motivate him to do anything.” But you can start to do it by calming down, slowing down, and simply observing. Observe the typical family dance steps and see if you and your mate contribute to your child’s refusal, struggle and apathy. If you carry more of the worry, fear, disappointments, and concern than your child does about his work, ask yourself “What’s wrong with this picture and how did this happen?” (Remember, as long as you carry their concerns, they don’t have to.)
Guide Your Child—Don’t Try to Control Him
Many parents tell me that their children are not motivated to do their work. I believe that children are motivated—they just may not be motivated the way you’d like them to be. Here are some concrete tips to help you guide them in their work without having to nag, threaten or fight with them.
Ask yourself what worked in the past: Think about a time when your child has gotten homework done well and with no hassles. What was different? What made it work that time? Ask your child about it and believe what he says. See what works and motivates him instead of what motivates you.
Stop the nightly fights. The way you can stop fighting with your kids over homework every night is to stop fighting with them tonight. Disengage from the dance. Choose some different steps or decide not to dance at all. Let homework stay where it belongs—between the teacher and the student. Refuse to get pulled in by the school in the future. Stay focused on your job, which is to help your child do his job.
Take a break: If you feel yourself getting reactive or frustrated, take a break from helping your child with homework. Your blood pressure on the rise is a no-win for everyone. Take five or ten minutes to calm down, and let your child do the same if you feel a storm brewing.
Set the necessary structures in place: Set limits around homework time. Here are a few possibilities that I’ve found to be effective with families:
- Homework is done at the same time each night.
- Homework is done in a public area of your house.
- If grades are failing or falling, take away screen time so your child can focus and have more time to concentrate on his work.
- Make it the rule that weekend activities don’t happen until work is completed. Homework comes first. As James Lehman says, “The weekend doesn’t begin until homework is done.”
Get out of your child’s “box” and stay in your own. When you start over-focusing on your child’s work, pause and think about your own goals. What are your life goals and what “homework” do you need to get done in order to achieve those goals? Model your own persistence and perseverance to your child.
Let Your Child Make His Own Choices—and Deal with the Consequences
I recommend that within the parameters you set around schoolwork, your child is free to make his own choices. You need to back off a bit as a parent, otherwise you won’t be helping him with his responsibilities. If you take too much control over the situation, it will backfire on you by turning into a power struggle. And believe me, you don’t want a power struggle over homework. I’ve seen many kids purposely do poorly just to show their parents “who’s in charge.” I’ve also seen children who complied to ease their parents’ anxiety, but these same kids never learned to think and make choices for themselves.
I’m a big believer in natural consequences when it comes to schoolwork. Within the structure you set up, your child has some choices. He can choose to do his homework or not, and do it well and with effort or not. The logical consequences will come from the choices he makes—if he doesn’t choose to get work done, his grades will drop.
When that happens, you can ask him questions that aren’t loaded, like,
“Are you satisfied with how things are going?
“If not, what do you want to do about it?”
“How can I be helpful to you?”
The expectation is that homework is done to the best of your child’s ability. When he stops making an effort and you see his grades drop, that’s when you invite yourself in. You can say, “Now it’s my job to help you do your job better. I’m going to help you set up a plan to help yourself and I will check in to make sure you’re following it.” Set up a plan with your child’s input in order to get him back on his feet. For example, the new rules might be that homework must be done in a public place in your home until he gets his grades back up. You and your child might meet with the teacher to discuss disciplinary actions should his grades continue to drop. In other words, you will help your child get back on track by putting a concrete plan in place. And when you see this change, then you can step back out of it. But before that, your child is going to sit in a public space and you’re going to work on his math or history together. You’re also checking in more. Depending on the age of your child, you’re making sure that things are checked off before he goes out. You’re adding a half hour of review time for his subjects every day. And then each day after school, he’s checking with his teacher or going for some extra help. Remember, this plan is not a punishment—it’s a practical way of helping your child to do his best.
When Kids Say They Don’t Care about Bad Grades
Many parents will say that their kids just don’t care about their grades. My guess is that somewhere inside, they do care. “I don’t care” also becomes part of a power struggle. In other words, your child is saying, “I’m not going to care because you can’t make me; you don’t own my life.” The truth is, you can’t make him care. Instead, focus on what helps his behavior improve. Don’t focus on the attitude as much as what he’s actually doing.
I think it’s also important to understand that caring and motivation come from ownership. You can help your child be motivated by allowing him to own his life more. So let him own his disappointment over his grades. Don’t feel it more than he does. Let him choose what he will do or not do about his homework and face the consequences of those choices. Now he will begin to feel ownership, which may lead to caring. Let him figure out what motivates him, not have him motivated by fear of you. Help guide him but don’t prevent him from feeling the real life consequences of bad choices like not doing his work. Think of it this way: It’s better for your child to learn from those consequences at age ten by failing his grade and having to go to summer school than for him to learn at age 25 by losing his job.
When Your Child Has a Learning Disability
I want to note that it’s very important that you check to see that there are no other learning issues around your child’s refusal to do homework. If he is having a difficult time doing the work or is performing below grade level expectations, he should be tested to rule out any learning disabilities or other concerns.
If there is a learning disability, your child may need more help. For example, some kids need a little more guidance; you may need to sit near your child and help a little more. You can still put structures into place depending on who your child is. Oftentimes kids with learning disabilities get way too much help and fall into the “learned helplessness” trap. Be sure you’re not over-functioning for your learning disabled child by doing his work for him or filling in answers when he is capable of thinking through them himself.
The Difference between Guidance and Over-Functioning
Your child needs guidance from you, but understand that guidance does not mean doing his spelling homework for him. Rather, it’s helping him review his words. When you cross the line into over-functioning, you are taking on your child’s work and putting his responsibilities on your shoulders. So you want to guide him by helping him edit his book report himself, helping him take the time to review before a test, or using James Lehman’s “Hurdle Help” to start him on his homework. Those can be good ways of guiding your child, but anything more than that is taking too much ownership of his work.
If your child asks for help, you can coach him. Suggest he talk to his teacher on how to be a good student, and teach him those communication skills. In other words, show him how to help himself. So you should not back off all together—it’s that middle ground that you’re looking for. That’s why I think it’s important to set up a structure; just put that electric fence around homework time. And within that structure, you expect your child to do what he has to do to be a good student.
I also tell parents to start from a place of believing in their children. Don’t keep looking at your child as a fragile creature who can’t do the work. I think we often come to the table with fear and doubt; we think if we don’t help our kids, they’re just not going to do it. But as much as you say, “I’m just trying to help you,” what your child actually hears is, “You’re a failure.” There’s an underlying message that kids pick up that is very different than what the parents intended it to be. And that message is, “You’re never enough,” and “You can’t do it.” Instead, your message should be, “I know you can do it. And I believe in you enough to let you make your own choices and deal with the consequences.”