I’ve Done My Homework (Years of It).

My parents didn’t do my homework. They didn’t hover over me asking how it was going or offering to help.

Both teacher and parent understood that I was responsible for, and capable of, initiating and completing the work on my own. Assignments addressed me, not my parents, as parents were not expected to be directly involved. They could certainly provide occasional guidance. But too much parental assistance was considered (gasp!) cheating. Whether you were in 1st grade or 12th, you were supposed to do your own homework. Parents were neither required, nor expected, to participate.

They weren’t kept in the dark, of course. If there were a problem, mom and dad would be alerted via a note or call home. Grades told the tale, and quarterly report cards were mailed directly to the parents.

Things have changed. A lot.

There is now a dangerously pervasive, indiscriminate push for “increased parental involvement.” Homework is a perfect example of the trend.

Parents now are expected to do homework with their kids. Parental responsibilities range from signing off on each item completed to total involvement in every detail of assignments that could not possibly be done without (and are clearly designed to require) considerable parental assistance.

Some assignments are, essentially, intended entirely for the parent. The work required far exceeds all but the most extraordinary student’s age-appropriate abilities.*

It’s my guess that these parent-assisted/completed assignments are meant to keep parents “in the loop” by insisting that the parent remain “highly involved.”

My complaint here is twofold.

First, I don’t want homework! I’ve already done lots and lots of it. Diligently and independently. I’ve learned my lessons, literally, and I don’t need to repeat them. So please, send age-appropriate assignments that can be done without my constant intervention or oversight, and if there is a problem with what’s coming back to school, get in touch. Other than that, leave me out of it. I’ve done my time. It’s their turn!

Which brings me to my second, more important, argument. Too much parental involvement in schoolwork isn’t good for kids. It reinforces, day after day, that the child is, and should remain, dependent and incapable. The child can’t do anything himself, on his own. If he could, mom wouldn’t always have to help and wouldn’t be required to sign off on everything.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to send home assignments that require no parental involvement whatsoever? How much more rewarding to be able to bring a completed assignment to mom and say, “Look, I did this all by myself!”

Sure, there will inevitably be times when help is needed. I remember doing multiplication table drills with my dad. That’s the sort of thing that’s tough to do on your own. You need someone to quiz you. The point is, those drills stand out vividly in my memory in part because they were rare exceptions to the “hands off” rule.

My parents weren’t ignoring or neglecting me the rest of the time. I knew they were available if I had a question or got stuck. They were always willing to help and I can remember several occasions when they did. But we didn’t do my homework together. It wasn’t expected, required, or even allowed. Instead, teachers and parents insisted that I not only learn, but learn how to learn. How to read instructions, do the required work, and follow through — without being prodded, cajoled, and coddled every step of the way.

And beyond offering “fun together time” with mom,* is all this parental involvement in homework actually educational? Are kids really learning anything with these parent-required assignments? Or is it merely a way of pushing parents into involvement that, in some cases, does more harm than good?

Call it an extension of the monumentally idiotic “No Child Left Behind.” Good idea, in theory. Terrible, heavy-handed implementation. Yes, I strongly believe that every child deserves a chance to reach his or her potential. But that doesn’t mean that everyone has equal potential, or that all kids need generalized intervention to excel. In fact, some really don’t need it at all.

Yes, absolutely, certain demographics are “under-served.” Kids who receive little if any guidance, encouragement, or stimulation at home do need schools to emphasize parental involvement and help bridge that gap. But my neighbors, friends, and most of the people I associate with do not fall into that category. In fact, we fall, hard, in the other direction.

The vast majority of kids I know spent their toddlerhood at Gymboree and The Music Class. They are tucked into bed every night with a story. They were surrounded with educational toys from the time they could roll over, and before that, they had educational mobiles dangled before their eyes and stimulating images pasted on the ceiling. They couldn’t have a poopy diaper changed without “learning” something — all while mommy and daddy encouraged and applauded.

These kids have rarely spent more than 2 consecutive minutes alone with their thoughts. They are read to, talked to, interacted with, and indulged almost constantly. This demographic doesn’t need what is, in essence, remedial education. Beyond academics, they need music, art, foreign language, physical education, expanded science and math classes, and recess — all those “extras” cut to accommodate No Child Left Behind’s mandates.

And even more, they need to be left alone. Alone to think. Alone to figure things out. Alone to learn and grow, and occasionally to fail and face the consequences. All without a parental helicopter hovering over them, waiting to airlift them to safety. They need to do their own homework!

So many of today’s parents — at least those I interact with in my own life — are so intimately involved in every aspect of their kids’ lives, that the kids cannot do anything — absolutely nothing — without the parent planning it, viewing it, assisting in it, and then performing a debriefing. We suffer from the polar opposite of  what No Child Left Behind attempts to combat. Our kids don’t suffer from parental neglect or lack of interest — they suffer from parental over-involvement. Yes, it’s true. You can be too involved in your kid’s life. Many of our kids have no autonomy, no privacy, and in the end, no self-reliance.

So what are my children really gaining from all this school-mandated parental involvement? That is, if the teacher cannot sufficiently explain assignments so any kid of average intelligence can understand and follow, and if the kid cannot complete that assignment independently, what are they really learning?


* My favorite misguided, potentially hazardous, virtually pointless, parental labor-intensive homework assignment, for your review:

At our public elementary school, kindergartners bring home each month a stuffed animal class mascot and a notebook in which to record all the fun stuff they do during their “overnight adventure.”

OK, first, can you say eeeww? No, I’m not crazy. Stuffed animals are filthy. So filthy, even consignment sales and used toy shops will not accept them. Now consider that this particular stuffed monkey makes a continuous round, all year long, of 22 households. Cat dander and communicable diseases, anyone? Mom task #1 – run the filthy beast through the washer and dryer before handing him over for the “fun.”

Next, photography. Sure, my daughter has a digital camera (what upper-middle-class, overly indulged 6-year-old doesn’t, right?). No problem there. And she’s a good photographer. She can’t take the photos and be in them simultaneously, however. She’s not good with the auto-timer just yet. And is she also supposed to download the files to my Mac and print from my wide-format printer? Mom task #2.

Next, the write-up. I don’t know about your brilliant kids, but mine were not writing paragraphs solo in kindergarten. At least not for the first several months, without a lot of help. Mom task #3 — fill out the monkey notebook. OMG, leave me alone!

Call me a cold, heartless parent, but after a day spent tending to three children, a husband, and a house, working part-time, working out, undergoing root canal or mammography or whatever else, I really don’t feel like laundering a germ-ridden stuffed monkey, battling my photo software and temperamental printer, and writing up a witty precis on our “at-home adventures” with said simian when I need to be making dinner and attending the neighborhood watch association meeting, preparing the lunches, then collapsing on the couch.

Maybe I’m self-centered. So be it. Just explain to me how this assignment has expanded my child’s world in any way whatsoever?

The first two months I played along, albeit grudgingly. Taking photos, writing up witty descriptions, cursing my child’s lovely teacher. After that, I vetoed. My daughter wasn’t thrilled, but the monkey never made it out of the bag. Never made it into the house, in fact. My poor kid wrote, “My mom does not like monkeys” in the notebook, and that was that.

And you should see that notebook! Clearly, I am alone once again on my anti-modern parenting island. Page after page, enthusiastically filled out by moms more devoted than I (or by kids more linguistically advanced than mine). It boggles the mind. They seem so happy to be doing it. Do they really feel it’s a worthwhile undertaking? Am I the only one who thinks it’s a bit silly and an enormous imposition? Am I the only one who resents the enormous waste of my time with no clear benefit to my child? Sure looks that way.

How about coming up with another assignment that my child can complete on her own? One with at least a modicum of educational value? I actually did write to the teacher suggesting an assignment less likely to spread scabies and more likely to teach something. I suggested each child write about his favorite stuffed animal. Where it’s from. What it looks like, feels like, and is made of. What its name is and why. What sort of animal it is and whether that’s an animal that is real, imaginary, or extinct. Photos (and show-and-tell demonstration) optional.

That assignment might require some help from me, but at least it’s worthwhile. It teaches the child to think about a question, come up with a response, form thoughts into a coherent sentence and then write it down (with or without help). That’s an assignment I wouldn’t mind helping out with. Even once a month.

(originally posted March 18, 2011)

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