The homework wars seem to be a hallmark of weekday evenings with school-age kids, and parents are always the ones defeated. As my daughter heads to kindergarten this year, I am dreading this fight. Because there will be a fight ... right? There will be times when she won't want to do her homework, and we'll have to figure out some way to make her do her homework, and everything will be hard. I have been bracing myself.
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But a new book is making me think maybe it's possible to let go of the battle before it begins. In The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives, William Stixrud and Ned Johnson argue that fighting with your kids over homework is not only hugely stressful for families, it isn't actually helping them in the long run. When you, the parent, act as if it's your job to make sure your kids do their homework (or practise the piano or memorise their lines for the school play), you are signalling that somebody outside of them is responsible for their actions. They then lose the experience of making decisions, facing the consequences of those decisions, and checking in with themselves to evaluate their current path. Also - and this is just as important - you're preventing your home from being the one thing it really needs to be: A "safe base". Johnson tells Scientific American that it should be "the place they can go to seek a respite from it all, where they feel safe and loved unconditionally, where they can fully relax, so that they can gather the energy to go back out".
The authors suggest making a big shift, one that, to me, is both mind-blowing and terrifying at the same time. It is this: Instead of seeing yourself as your kid's manager, parent like a consultant. That means when it comes to issues such as homework or piano practice, you can ask yourself, "What would a consultant do?" You can motivate the child, offer advice, answer questions, and be there, but then you have to hang back and give your kid the power to navigate his or her own life. It isn't a laissez-faire style of parenting, Stixrud and Johnson argue - you should set limits, talk your child about what you're worried about, and "offer a life raft every step of the way." But "you're not steering the boat," they write.
One way to set up this parent-as-consultant model, as Stixrud tells NPR, is to establish homework "consulting hours".
What I said to parents is that, if you decide you're not going to fight about this anymore, you say instead, "How can I help?" You think about yourself as a consultant and acknowledge respectfully that it's the kid's homework. You can't make your child do it. What you can do is offer to help.
You can set up what I call consulting hours between 6:30 and 7:30PM, and just say, "I'm not going to fight with you. I just love you too much. I don't want all this friction. This is your work, and I respect that you can figure this out and I'll help you." A family just told me that the temperature went down in their house by 20 degrees.
In the book, Stixrud and Johnson write that your consulting hours should be clear - your child can take advantage of them or not. If she comes to you at 9:30PM saying that she needs help, you can tell her, "The time for homework has passed. I'll will be available again tomorrow from 6:30 to 7:30." She'll likely become more focused as she learns the schedule. You can always make exceptions as needed - if she's working on a big project or the material is particularly challenging, for instance.
Real talk: The Tiger Parent inside me is hyperventilating at this advice, even though I believe it's valuable. I want my kid to take ownership of her life, but I also want her to colour in all the planets when her teacher asks her to. What if she doesn't do it? What if she never does it? What if the teacher tries to make me make her do it? There are certain things my parents made me to do, and I'm so glad they did. Stixrud and Johnson have responses to these questions and concerns in their book, but it mostly comes down to making peace with the fact that we cannot force our kids to do what we want them to do, or be who we want them to be. Parenting, of course, is complex - you can't just hand the kid whose butt you've wiped a new business card that says "Mum the Consultant", but you can start with the premise that your child has a good brain, and is a capable being.
I'm still churning all of this in my head. Part of me is still sceptical. But once we're able to grasp the reality, the authors say, we can let go of the responsibility to micromanage our kids, and simply enjoy them. And our kids will start developing the skills to choose their own paths.