It was a Tuesday night. My third grade daughter had just finished her piano lesson, and it was time to begin her weekly homework packet. On Monday, we had gone straight from school to run a handful of errands and then spontaneously went out to dinner. The previous week, my parents had been visiting. Needless to say, we hadn’t gotten very far on the homework. Wednesday wasn’t looking very promising, either, as my daughter had Girl Scouts after school and I taught an evening class and would be unavailable to help with her writing exercise.
As we trudged into the kitchen to get started, we heard a knock at the door. It was our five-year-old neighbor who wanted to play. The kids had been eager to get together for days, but we had all been too busy. My daughter looked at me anxiously. “What should I do?” she whispered. “I really want to play.”
“It’s your choice,” I told her. “We’ll do as much homework as we can later today and tomorrow, and if we don’t finish it, that’s just too bad.”
She chose to go outside and play with her friend. You’re damn right, she did. Because she’s eight.
At the beginning of the year, whenever we didn’t have time to complete our homework, I was bombarded by an unpleasant cocktail of emotions: guilt, irritation, anxiety, frustration. That’s right: I, a 36-year-old mother felt overwhelmed and resentful about our third grade homework load. That’s just not right. But now, on those days when we’re unable to finish the assignment, I simply write a pleasant “Sorry, but we ran out of time today” note on my daughter’s worksheet. And yet I still feel a wave of guilt and defensiveness when we fail to complete our work (note my use of “our”); it’s almost as though I’m penning the explanation note to my own teacher, worrying that I might get in trouble.
In first grade, my daughter began bringing home a daily math worksheet, one that we were often incapable of tackling together, what with my inability to “make a math mountain” or “make a ten.” Additionally, she was responsible for a weekly spelling list and reading log. Same in second grade.
Third grade was a game-changer. In addition to four daily math worksheets, the kids are responsible for a five-page weekly homework packet that often includes a math “game” or writing prompt as well as a reading log. The weeks when the homework packet isn’t assigned due to conferences or holidays are an absolute relief. My daughter and I whoop with delight whenever she gets off the bus to tell me the good news. There is no denying how much easier life was during those homework-free weeks.
Our family is far from over-scheduled: each child has one dance class per week, my oldest has a weekly piano lesson at home, I teach a Wednesday evening class, and we have Girl Scout Brownie meetings twice a month. We also have to go to Costco sometimes, and occasionally we have visitors or friends over for dinner. Sometimes we like to play with kids in the neighborhood. We occasionally cave to societal pressure and bathe our children. With just four hours from bus stop pick up to bedtime, afternoons and evenings tend to fill up.
As I consider how difficult it is to squeeze in time-consuming homework assignments with our average-sized activity load and regular responsibilities of running a household, all I can think is, “How the hell are we going to survive high school?” When I became a parent, I was completely unprepared for the fact that elementary school homework would be stressful and anxiety-provoking—for both me and my children. This is a serious problem.
Last fall, I wrote “Why Homework in Elementary School is a Bad Idea.” As you can see, my feelings on this topic have not evolved much. To be clear, I’m not against all homework. I think the occasional school project or worksheet is a great way for parents to be involved and stay informed about what their kids are working on. And I think it’s a perfect opportunity for kids to practice responsibility and take pride in their work. But when it becomes a tedious burden, a stressor, we have missed the potential value of homework assignments. What is going to happen if our kids are burned out on “work” before they hit puberty?
Adults don’t go straight from work to “more work” (let’s refrain from any commentary on working moms who technically go from one job (outside the home) to another (inside the home), m’kay?) in the evening. We arrive home, relax a bit, enjoy our families, feed ourselves, do what needs to be done to care for our homes. It is not OK for children this young to go from work (school) to more work. We are missing the point of what school is supposed to be at this age: an opportunity to cultivate a curiosity and love of learning, a time to feel good about accomplishments, years of exploration and enthusiasm. I don’t know about you, but raising aspiring workaholics is not high on my parenting priority list.
So I do the only thing I can—when homework is too much for our family, I simply say “no.” Sure, most of the time we get it done. We make a diligent effort to fit it in and complete it as often as we can. But on those days when it is overly taxing, I instead scrawl a guilt-ridden-confrontational-fantasy-inspiring “Sorry!” note on my daughter’s worksheet and call it a day. Because she’s not a junior in high school: she’s eight.
Yesterday my third grader went straight from school to her end-0f-the-year Brownies party. After two hours of activities, all the families celebrated with pizza. By the time we got home, we had half an hour until bedtime.
And we chose to ride bikes through the puddles. We looked for worms and rainbows. We chose to end our day without a frenzy, without rushing or pushing. We chose sanity.
It is important to me that my children learn to work hard, to try their best, to follow through with their obligations. But balance is important, too. Sometimes, we will choose our family over work. Sometimes we will choose to be outside instead, to be with our friends, enjoying life. Sometimes we will say “no.”
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