Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Irony of Homework

Like it (parents) or not (students), homework has become an ingrained part of the school landscape. At its very basic level, homework reinforces what students are learning in class and gives teachers a quick check to see if their pupils understand the material.

While homework has been around since the introduction of public schooling in America, the homework of the early 20th century looks much different from the homework of the 21st century—and I’m not talking about the actual worksheets and problems, although that has undergone a metamorphosis of sorts as well.

What has changed is the fundamental understanding of homework. It used to be understood by all—teachers, parents, pupils—that homework was the sole responsibility and domain of students to whom it was assigned. Nowadays, homework involves not only the student but his parents as well—all with the full support and encouragement of teachers.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/
For one of many examples I could cite from our children’s teachers at the local public elementary school (and let me state that we think the teachers are doing a bang-up job teaching our kids overall), take a look at this recent note from my second grader’s teacher:

“Some students are still not writing down the books they read at home or having a parent sign their planner. This is part of their homework, so please help your child remember to do this every night.”

Now read it again and see if you can catch the irony in that simple request from teacher to parents. Here’s the words and phrases that jumped out at me: their homework, that is, the students’ work. Then, please help your child remember, that is, the parents need to help their child remember the child’s homework.

Let’s return to the matter of whose homework is it: The child’s, of course. So why does the teacher request that the parents get involved with helping the student do his own homework? If the child is supposed to be learning to be responsible for his own homework—which is the goal of this entire planner thing, in which the kids write down their homework each day—then how is a parent reminding the child going to help the child learn that responsibility?

The short answer is that it’s not. And the more we as parents “help” our children “remember” their own homework, the more our children will “forget” to do the work (or even how to do the work). I guarantee that every parent who reminds their second grader to write down the book they read and to bring the planner to a parent for a signature will still be reminding that same child until the end of the school year. That kind of “help” is not going to make our kids progress to the point where they don’t need our assistance.

In other words, if we don’t put the onus of remembering homework in the first place and if we don’t allow our children to turn in incomplete work or imperfect work, we are essentially creating an dependence on others for work that by its very definition should be completed, alone, by the child. If the child really doesn’t understand the material, then the teacher needs to know that. If the child can’t “remember” to have a planner signed by a parent, then the teacher needs to know that too—and grade accordingly.

Our second grader has a rather spotty record on the planner signing and book title writing down in planner. We knew that teacher’s note was talking about our second grader (and probably others in the class as well). However, we simply said only, “Your teacher said you are not writing down the book titles and having us sign your planner.” That’s it. We didn’t remind the second grader every day to do this. We didn’t hound the second grader to get this down. We put the responsibility firmly in his hands and let him sink or swim on his own. He has improved his performance in this area, which wouldn’t have been the case had we gotten involved and started shouldering the responsibility for his planner.

How do you handle homework—and is that way working for you and your kids?

Until next time,


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Who Motivates Whom?

Q: My 9-year-old son (a triplet) is in third grade (as is his sister and brother). Lately, his grades have declined into Bs and Cs. All of his teachers say that his behavior in class is the reason for the drop in grades, which is that he struggles to stay focused on class work (they even mentioned the possibility that he might have ADD). At a recent meeting with his teachers, we all agreed to work together on his behavior: They will let me know if he isn’t meeting expectations behavior-wise at school, while I will enforce consequences at home.

If he’s not interested in something, he barely puts any effort into it and won’t stay on task. He’s the same with chores as he is with school work. Two months ago, I removed all video games but that has ceased to motivate him. Currently, I make him study for 45 minutes to an hour each school night, but he only puts in minimal effort. His teachers say he’s smart, and with focus, I think he could get straight As. What suggestions do you have to motivate him to do better in school?

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/

A: The simple answer is that he won’t be motivated to do better in school until he has a “reason” to do so. As you say, he's simply not interested in doing what he is capable of doing. You don’t say what behaviors he exhibits in school other than he seems unfocused on his work.

However, he won’t become motivated himself as long as you’re “making” him study for 45 minutes to an hour each night. Why are you involved so much in his homework? Until you give him complete control over his school work and homework, he will not care one iota about it. He knows that you are more concerned about his grades than he is.

Being in third grade means there’s plenty of time for him to get himself in gear academically. But--and this is a huge but--you and his teachers have to be prepared to let him sink or swim on his own.

Have a meeting with his teachers. Say you appreciate their concern, but that you think--and they have backed you up on this by saying that he’s capable of doing the work--your son needs complete ownership of his third-grade work. State that you will no longer be making sure he does his homework, that you expect the teachers to give him the grade his work deserves, and that you are fully prepared for him to repeat third grade if his effort falls short of the benchmark. Be prepared for shock and perhaps dismay, but stand firm. Also expect that he might repeat third grade if he completely flubs the rest of the year.

Tell your son that you’re sorry for your over-involvement in what is his domain—his school work—and that from now on, you are going to let him handle his homework, projects, tests, etc. You will be available for any questions, but his school work is his business and his alone. Add that you have informed his teachers that you fully support whatever grade your son’s work deserves, and that you also support his repeating third grade if his performance at school doesn’t turn around.

Then stop talking about it. Let him tell you about his day, but don’t ask about his homework, etc. (and this should encompass his siblings as well--you don’t need to be involved in their school work or homework, either!). When report cards come home, meet with each child individually to talk about the grades in a FYI-type manner.

Remember, repeating third grade isn’t the end of the world, especially since you are giving your son a lesson that will last a lifetime—that he is responsible for his own actions, whether that be behavior or school work. That’s a lesson worth learning on his own.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Are Your Kids Entitled?

Are we raising a generation of entitled children? One recent blog post, “Seven Emotions That Follow a Sense of Entitlement,” talks about what emotions entitled youth feel—and how these sinister attitudes have crept into our homes and beyond.

The blog’s author, Tim Elmore, posited that anger, impatience, cynicism, resentment, criticism, ingratitude and disappointment are all byproducts of feeling entitled. Here are some questions to ask to see if you’re raising entitled children—and what to do to change the course.

  • Are your children (not toddlers!) angry most of the time?
  • Are your children impatient most of the time?
  • Are your children cynical most of the time?
  • Are your children resentful most of the time?
  • Are your children cynical most of the time?
  • Are your children ungrateful most of the time?
  • Are your children disappointment most of the time?

Image courtesy of Clare Bloomfield/
If you answered yes to one or more of those questions, then you have entitled children. To change that, you must help them change their attitude. Here are some tips on how to accomplish that.

Delay gratification. Whenever possible, make your child wait for whatever it is he is dying to have or do. For example, don’t give your child a snack 30 minutes before dinner just because he’s starving. Waiting a half hour to eat isn’t going to kill him, but it can strengthen his patience.

Ban complaining. No one likes to be around someone who constantly complains, yet we allow our children to whine about things all day long without correcting them. Start with something small, like no complaining at the dinner table, then add other topics. When you stop the grumbling in one zone, you’ll be surprised at how much it will decrease in other areas.

Highlight blessings. Most of us have more to be thankful for than we act like, so taking time as a family to list those blessings is a great antidote to ungratefulness. One idea is the Blessings Jar, where family members are encouraged to jot down ways for which they are grateful and drop it in the jar. Once a week or so, the family gathers to read the blessings.

Acknowledge, but don’t wallow in, disappointments. We all suffer disappointments from time to time, and so do our children. However, while we should commiserate with them, we shouldn’t allow them to obsess about a disappointment. For example, giving a hug and telling your teen that it is, indeed, a terrible thing that she didn’t get the part in the play is a good thing for a parent to do. But continually rehashing the disappointment and reliving that moment isn’t healthy, so we need to help our kids deal with the hurt and move on with their lives in a positive way.

These are just some of the ways to curb that sense of entitlement in our kids that can creep up on all of us.

Until next time,


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Winding Up, Crashing Down

Q: My six-year-old daughter has had crazy mood swings lately, especially around the holidays. She’s well-behaved during school. But at events around family, which includes cousins she plays nicely with, she’ll come home and simply not calm down. If anything, her behavior spirals quickly out of control into hyperactivity. For example, one time when we got home just past her regular bedtime, she couldn’t brush her teeth—just kept jumping around the bathroom, blurting out silly things and laughing. When my husband threatened to punish her, her “happy” mood dissolved into tears and uncontrollable crying. What can we do to prevent this cycle from continuing the next time we’re around family or friends?

A: It sounds to me like your daughter has stimuli overload. At school, she behaves but lets it all hang out at home. Super-charged events, like holidays and family gatherings, can wind some kids up until they just lose control over their actions, hence the silliness in the bathroom. For example, one of my kids gets very upset in situations where he/she doesn’t know what to do or where to go. I have to remind myself of his/her tendency and respond to his/her initial frustration expressions more calmly, as well as provide assistance in helping the child overcome the situation, such as with calming techniques or permission to sit alone with a book for a bit to regroup.

That doesn't mean we excuse bad behavior, but that we understand that he/she is one of those kids who gets wired in certain situations. That understanding can help us parents know how to handle it and also help the child learn how to gain control in similar circumstances.

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So for your daughter, it might be better if you had let her skip the tooth-brushing and physically assisted her get in her pajamas that evening. A story with the lights down low and snuggling close with you or your husband as you read would help as well, or perhaps a story told or favorite song sung as she lay in bed in the dark.

Just knowing she would likely come home all wired up will help you and your husband to respond in quieter and calmer tones, which should, in turn, help her to unwind more. You might consider bringing PJs to such events and having her change before you leave if you know it will be late when you get home. That way, you can play soothing music in the car on the way home and pop her in bed immediately (skipping one night of brushing her teeth every once in a while won’t hurt her). You could also just plan on leaving earlier so that she has time to unwind before her regular bedtime.

When she comes home from school, help her make the transition between school and home. Let her run around the outside of the house six times (or up and down the sidewalk X times) or jump on a mini-trampoline for X minutes. Any activity to help her get some of her energy redirected in physical activity can help calm her brain.

Whatever you do, don’t give her electronics on school days as many studies have shown electronics of any sort can wind up kids' brains. Avoid high-sugar foods as snacks, too; instead, try fruit and/or cheese for a quick snack after school. Get some books or other children’s audio CDs from the library and let her listen to one in her room directly after supper to wind down for the night. Some good ones are the Rabbit Ears collections of fairy tales, world tales and folk tales--very excellent!--and the History of the World CD sets.

Above all, stay as calm as you can and do what you can to help her develop her own way of handling those transitions and stimuli. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Mom’s Confession: Sometimes, My Children Bore Me

When you’re pregnant with your first child, everyone tells you how wonderful it will be when he or she arrives into the world. “You’ll enjoy every minute of time with this child, with whom you’ll want to spend more and more and more time.”

On the one hand, this is totally true. That precious little bundle of joy (and poop and spit-up) tugs at your heart in a way unlike anything you’ve experienced previously. This is the love that drives you out of bed when the infant cries, gives you grace to clean up yet another mess, and ensures that the child survives into adulthood—despite driving you sometimes crazy in the process.

But, on the other hand, that statement is totally not true. We joke about longing to be stranded on a desert island with a good book, a glass of wine, and nary a kid in sight. What we don’t even joke about is the fact that sometimes children can be downright boring and demanding. We can’t say that because it sounds so horrible, that these little people we’re raising—and that we love to pieces—are not great conversationalists most of the time. Sure, sometimes, they say something quite cute and interesting. But do I really want to hear all about how to play the Treasure Island game my second grader learned in PE that morning? Do I need to be fully engaged in a conversation about dinosaurs for the hundredth time? Do we need to be told every thought that crosses our children’s minds—and pretend that those insights are all so darn interesting?

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Let me state emphatically that I do talk with my children, that I’m frequently amazed by their insights, suggestions, thoughts, and silliness. We enjoy hearing about their day at the dinner table—but we also have no problem telling them they are talking too much, that we don’t want to hear for the umpteenth time about their LEGO creation, and that we truly would rather talk about something other than baseball stats.

What I think we’ve lost as parents is the balance of things, the realization that our children aren't very interesting most of the time—and that’s okay, because they are only children. We’ve forgotten that childhood is messy, gross, and boring to grownups in a healthy way. We’ve become obsessed with our children to the point that we give them status and place beyond their years by paying close attention to all that they say and do, by always admiring their words and works, and by making them believe that everything they do is noteworthy of our complete and full attention.

During a recent conversation among mothers with children of various ages, one said, “Sometimes I crank up the radio just to not engage in conversation with my daughter about the movie Frozen. She talks about it nonstop, and it’s driving me crazy.” We all laughed, then I said, “I’d just tell her to stop talking about it, that I wasn’t going to be listening to her chatter on that subject for now.” Her reply? “I never thought about just telling her to stop talking. I thought I should always listen to everything she said.”

Her statement is typical of today’s parent—that we think we have to pay close attention and respond to our children’s chatter all of the time. We’ve forgotten what our grandmothers knew instinctively: That children talk too much and that they need to be taught to be good conversationalists. What we’re doing collectively as parents is teaching our children the exact opposite: how to be a bore.

If you want your child to learn how to be someone with whom others will enjoy conversing, try these tips:

Cut them off. When a child goes on and on about something he’s passionate about, you want to encourage that passion, but you also want him to realize that not everyone’s going to be as excited as he is about dinosaurs, for example. Help him realize when he’s talking too much about that topic by simply telling him it’s time to stop talking about it.

Show them how conversation works. Talking with someone is different than talking at someone. When a child dominates a conversation, they are not engaged in true conversation—they are talking at the other person, instead of with them. Gently redirect their talk to include other family members or friends. Help them one-on-one if necessary to say three things, then stop and ask a question of the other person.

Practice listening skills. Sometimes, a child will act bored around another sibling or friend who is talking about a topic that doesn’t interest her—but will expect complete enrapture when she has the floor to talk about her pet issue. Guide her in how to be a good listener, too. People want to talk more with others who truly listen than they do with someone who only wants to promote her agenda without regard to others.

So the next time you become bored with your children’s conversation, tell them gently, redirect the flow, and help them to become better at talking with, instead of talking at, others.

Until next time,

Content Sarah Hamaker
Photo of Sarah, Copyright Donna Hamaker
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