And whose homework is it anyway?
I know, I know: It’s barely August, but it is almost that time. School will begin soon and thus will begin the ritual we parents and teachers all love so dearly ” homework.
Our children will heave their 40-pound backpacks loaded with textbooks onto their shoulders, displacing vertebrae and straining muscles and trudge off to school. Once there, they will attempt to remain conscious ” or maybe not ” through their early morning classes until they wake up around lunchtime.
When they are dismissed, they will heave those backpacks back onto their shoulders and slouch home laden with many hours worth of homework. And that’s when the fun begins.
The question, “Do you have homework?” is almost a rhetorical one. Here are some answers I remember fondly:
“I did it at school.”
“I just had it a minute ago. I think someone stole it.”
“Yeah, but I’m not doing it cuz it’s hella stupid.”
I have been known to become overly invested in my childrens’ homework. I have restricted television and skateboarding; I have developed personal relationships with teachers such that I e-mailed every one of them on a daily basis. I’ve tried sophisticated tracking systems for monitoring what happens to my son’s homework assignments between the classroom and his locker; I’ve considered attaching a GPS device to his pants to map his activities throughout the day. I have begged and pleaded and resorted to being manipulative and calculating.
“You’ve told me math class is torture; that your teacher is boring and treats you unfairly so I’ve decided to come to your class to protect you. It’s on my usual running route so I’ll just stop in. I hope you don’t mind if I’m wearing my purple running tights.”
The color drained from my teenage son’s face as he realizes that his plan of being excused from doing his math work has gone horribly awry.
“OK, OK. I’ll do my work just don’t come to my class in your running tights or I’ll, like, shoot myself.”
After several years of working myself to the bone shepherding his schoolwork, I became bitter and resentful, not to mention the nervous tic. I decided then that this was an excellent opportunity to allow the natural consequences to prevail.
I said to him calmly, “My son, you are the architect of your future. If you choose not to do homework or attend class because they suck, I’m certain that you will be absolutely capable of handling the consequences. However, know this: I will not be providing you with transportation or funding for your favorite activities, because I would feel like I’m not teaching you anything about the beauty of pushing through something difficult to attain a goal. All I would be doing is teaching you that it’s okay to make excuses and skate by doing the bare minimum and there’s no beauty or wisdom gained from that.”
The intent of my decision was to teach him that he was accountable to himself first; that he would be living the consequences of his choices. I let go of what was ultimately his responsibility. Did I question myself and wonder if I hadn’t done enough? Absolutely. However, no amount of encouraging, supporting, begging and getting angry or threatening had thus far inspired him to become a better student.
I reminded him that once he turned 18 he would be facing a competitive world where his decision to blow off his education would probably cost him dearly and not just because he would have no high school diploma. Avoiding hard work and learning to make excuses instead of just putting one foot in front of the other would cost him in terms of his self-esteem and self-discipline, both of which one needs in order to function in a competitive world that doesn’t care how hard your childhood was or whether you don’t feel up to pulling your weight.
There will always be people who have had it much worse and who are willing to push harder to get where they want to go.
I told him my story of dropping out of high school at the age of 16, but my reasons were very different. I lived with my mother; a narcotics addict who died shortly after my 16th birthday of an overdose. I was on my own and thought that I didn’t need school anymore. It was a long, painful journey making up for the time I lost in my education, and although I wanted to spare my son that pain, in the end, I could only do the best I could to teach him and then let go.
As M. Scott Peck said, “Our job as parents is not to prepare the path of life for our children, but to prepare our children for the path, whatever that may be.”
Kimball Pier is a practicing therapist, substance abuse counselor and divorce mediator. She has an M.S. in marriage and family therapy and advanced divorce mediation certification. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.