From the time Michael was in first grade, he and I have had an ongoing battle over homework.


In elementary school, he would literally spend an hour seated at the kitchen table telling me all the reasons why homework was unfair. The gist of his argument was that after having spent the whole day working at school, he thought it was unreasonable that he was required to do even more work at home. As well-honed as his debating skills may have become over the years (180 days of school x 10+ years), I wondered how this seemingly intelligent young boy couldn’t see the disconnect between effort and results. The hour –long tirade against homework was to forestall ten minutes worth of busy work in those early years. If he had just shut up and done the work, he would have been off to play before supper and sunset had him stuck indoors for the night. And I would have been granted a modicum of peace from the continual chatter that was the white noise of my life until he turned 14. Instead we did this back-and-forth dance -every day.


I was one of the few parents I knew who didn’t meet the return of school with relish. The kids and I enjoyed our summer days –beaches, parks, museums, mountains. Lots of together time, very little scheduled time. Summer was fun; school was not. It returned us not only to a crazily overscheduled family routine, but also to the afterschool argument.


When Michael was headed to middle school, I committed parenting mistake number 418. As I had for his sister, I allowed Michael some independence with regard to his school work. I wouldn’t be checking and nagging. At least not until his first grades came out. In the played-out scenario in my brain, Michael would put minimal effort in and receive the corresponding lackluster grades. I would then swoop in with documented evidence of his missteps and shower him with all my grade boosting knowhow.


Now that I think of it there was way more than one parenting error here. First, Michael is not his sister. They don’t act alike, think alike, learn alike. I think Alex was six when she correctly pointed out to mommy and daddy that we were walking in the wrong direction of the huge Disney parking lot if we wanted to find our car. She’s a visual learner.


Michael, on the other hand, never successfully found his way back to the beach blanket after he stepped from the surf.


He’s auditory. Which is good thing in a classroom setting. And a bad one. Because he could learn simply by listening, he could get good grades without much effort. Actually, without any. And actually really good grades –honor roll. I knew we were in trouble when his history teacher offered a heads-up phone call when Michael had studied the wrong chapter for an exam. During the conversation she also alluded to Michael’s poor organizational and notetaking skills.


He got a 95 on the test.


Again, not a good thing.


The evidence I was trying to gather to support the hypothesis that poor effort equaled poor grades was proving pretty elusive.


I knew it would catch up with him. I was just hoping for sooner, rather than later.


It did catch him. But it was later. In some ways, too much so. Having gotten away with negligible effort for so long, the notion of now spending hours on high school level homework is pretty far out of his mindset.


Last week’s homework conversation threw me back to first grade. Rather than doing his homework, he presented a well-built and articulately delivered treatise on why he didn’t want to do it. In fact, why he shouldn’t have to.


I’m serious. This is the way he actually thinks.


He presented a list of cons -no pros- the last salvo of which was that it simply wasn’t worth the effort because grades are unimportant. Unfortunately, this one might be mine. In rebuttal to his oft shouted claim that all I care about are grades, I have often said that I don’t. And yes, I’ve used that word with regard to grades: unimportant.


How many parenting mistakes are we at?


More to come.


After kicking him and his debate out of my room, with threats, bribes and a bottom-line answer that yes, he had to do his homework, he retreated.


Battle weary perhaps, but not war defeated.


After days of consideration, he came up with a compromise.


He agreed to do all his homework in all of his classes. Except for two. I’ll leave out which two, just not to offend the teachers of those subjects. Let’s just say he didn’t choose Photo and Band. Think the important ones.


The interesting thing in all of this is that Michael actually likes to learn. Was a sponge for it when he was younger. With some subjects, still is.


Battling a cold and a low grade fever a couple of weeks ago, Michael stayed home from school. Don’t ask me why, but he actually doesn’t like to miss school. Go figure. However, when we talked that night, he told me he’d had what he considered a perfect day. He slept until noon, then woke up and composed two songs.




The blog’s title should affirm that I do not think my kids are perfect. I can’t excuse Michael his stubborn streak or his oft-skewed way of judging the world around him. But on his legitimate sick day, my son was free to text, facebook, twitter. He could have spent the day watching movies or playing video games. Instead, he made music.


So I have to question a school system that uses high-stakes testing and hours of homework as barometers of quality. And I wonder about educational constraints that are so narrowly constructed as to exclude a vibrant learner with a still inquisitive mind. And I worry about a success that defines intelligence more for its conformity than its ingenuity, gives credit for good grades over real grasp and understanding. And makes a kid look at September and the start of school, as Michael told me on his first day this year, as the season of the year when he stops learning.

3 thoughts on “Homework

  1. Although I loved your entire “Homework” piece, the last paragraph, is, perhaps the most noteworthy. My daughter sounds very much like Michael — in the way in which they learn — She now attends an amazing school in which out-of-the-box thinking is actually ENCOURAGED, (a skill she will need in REAL life). She is thriving. Her Dad and I are SOOOO happy we found a solution to the rote public school model of “learning” (aka drilling for MCAS)……Our son…..that’s a story for another time!

  2. Homework,homework,homework- it is the bane of my existence, both professionally as a middle school counselor and as a parent. I have been to educational confences on professional learning comunities which look at essential learnings in all different content areas. The view of homework, its purpose, how it is factored into the grade is very different from the tradional view. The points you made Linda in the past paragraph are all very much the topic discussion at my school. I read a great book, “rethinking homework” which also lends a different perspective on homework. I am not saying all homework is useless, but much of what students have for homework is not really useful. Anyway, I can go on forever about the homework issue- I have one who freaks out if she doesn’t get it all done at least a day before it’s due, and I’ve got one who can’t seem to remember to do it, turn it in, get make-up work…and then is amazed when the 0s in the grade book pulls her grade down and she looses her phone until the grades come up. Wonders never cease!

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