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How Parents Can Disengage From the Homework Wars

In millions of households, there is no greater drama than the nightly struggle to get kids to do their homework. How many parents would love to have a magic wand that could abolish the homework wars forever? There actually is such a wand, figuratively speaking.
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Welcome to the new school year! In millions of households across the country, there is no greater drama than the nightly struggle to get kids to do their homework. How many parents would love to have a magic wand that could abolish the homework wars forever? There actually is such a wand, figuratively speaking, yet it derives its power not from magic, but from the hand that holds it.

We've all seen "homework guidelines," be they in self-help books, online, or in school handbooks. There are so many of them it can be confusing and overwhelming to the parent who is already confused and overwhelmed. In truth there are a few simple goals and principles that are intuitive and enable informed decisions about homework supervision down the road.

Most homework guides are quite lengthy and cover everything from helping your child create a distraction-free study zone to rounding up all the needed materials to establishing a reward system for homework completion. Many have expansive subsections about the additional measures to be taken by parents of children with learning or attention difficulties.

Here's how parents can help the "typical" child develop day-to-day self-reliance and, ultimately, strong lifelong study habits. While the stress of simply getting through each day of homework headaches is understandably the primary concern of many parents, the overarching goal of facilitating independent work skills in children is to prevent these aggravating battles in the first place.

The following four tips will help parents establish greater daily tranquility at the kitchen table, while propelling them towards one of the Holy Grails of parenting -- the eventual removal of themselves from extreme homework supervision, a not-so-fun sport.

1. Understand and make peace with the fact that your children may hate doing homework. It's just a reality that there are many more interesting things kids prefer to do, especially in the electronic age, and it is not always possible to make homework inherently appealing to them.

Accepting how your children feel about their homework is not the same thing as agreeing with them; it's about adopting a mindset that allows you to modulate how you approach your child's homework behaviors with basic empathy, while still setting rules, boundaries and reasonable expectations.

2. Try to facilitate rather than intimidate. I've been there. You can beg, plead, bribe, cajole and threaten, but these tactics only achieve temporary acquiescence, and in the long run lose effectiveness entirely, forcing you to continually find ways to up the ante. It's best to stay positive even when you don't feel that way. Use praise, focus on what kids are doing well, downplay poor performance, and in any way you can, defuse the tension.

Humor is always good. A little levity goes a long way towards cooling things down. Not feeling funny? Go online -- there are tons of websites with funny homework jokes and interesting celebrity quotes about homework. Let your children feel that you are on their team. You expect them to do their homework, but you will not engage in power struggles that exhaust everyone and serve as a passive-aggressive method kids use to continue avoiding the work.

3. Shift the responsibility from you to your child. This can be hugely challenging, but it is crucial that children learn as early as possible that if they do not do their homework, the consequences fall on them, not you. The only way they can learn this is if you are willing to let them fail. If this feels too difficult, I recommend reading Wendy Mogel's The Blessing of a B Minus. As long as you are providing appropriate support and a structured environment, it is OK to let your child assume the bulk of the responsibility.

Young children who are just learning to do homework obviously need hand-holding, but older kids, especially those nearing and in middle school, can be expected to be increasingly independent. They can come to you with questions, but it is not your job to "get them through" their homework every day by standing over them and interacting with them
the whole time. Unless you really enjoy that role, step out of it and let your upper elementary or middle school child try to fly solo, especially on routine homework. If he or she does not do it, let the zero or the "incomplete" be his or her teacher.

It is easier to let this happen to a younger child than an older one whose grades increasingly matter, so as soon as you feel your child is ready, give both of you the gift of letting natural consequences take their course. There are no guarantees that your child will stop procrastinating/not doing the work, but the odds of your child internalizing that this is not parent-homework, but kid-homework, do improve if you disengage from being sucked into being too hands-on.

4. Allow your child to experience the authentic pride in a job well done. If parents help too much with homework, kids are robbed of a primary benefit of homework, which is the satisfaction of learning and accomplishing something on their own. They don't really know this and might not be able to understand it, but you do. Kids who receive too much academic support sometimes learn to feel helpless, and remain overly reliant on adult support well into high school and often beyond. Kids grow into more capable and confident adults when they are allowed to succeed and fail on their own terms.

So this is not to say that you should never help your child with homework, just that you should pay attention and notice if your child has a knee-jerk dependence on you when the work becomes the slightest bit challenging. In those moments, "I know you can do it" goes a lot further than, "Here, let me see it," and the sooner you deliver this message, the easier on everyone. If you are already trapped in this cycle, breaking it will take time and patience, but can be done through careful planning and perseverance. If your child really needs significant extra help, or does not receive guidance well from parents, obtain a professional tutor or seek advice from the school. This allows you to stay only lightly involved, while remaining supportive.

All of the above suggestions assume that parents are taking into account the age of their children. Very young children should not be abandoned at homework time. It is all about the process of helping kids gain independence and self-reliance gradually over time. If the homework wars can be circumvented before they start, children are more likely to develop the independent study skills needed for the later grades by experiencing increased levels of personal responsibility across the earlier grades.

Parents will also experience increased levels of sanity -- a win-win!

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