The yelling starts about 20 minutes after we get home. Coats are hung. Bags are put away. Playing and decompressing from school and the tram ride home has begun. But there is homework still to do.
And, thus, The Yelling.
We both yell, my son and I. Him with indignation, me with anger, both of us with frustration. My oldest son, who is 9 and in the third grade, has never had homework before we moved to Basel, Switzerland. He used to attend a Montessori school where homework was against the Montessori Teaching Philosophy. Here in Switzerland he and his younger brother attend a school with an International Baccalaureate Program with a modified homework program. Here they call it Home Learning. It includes the Web and physical packets, covers all his subjects, and is somewhat optional.
I will explain what “somewhat optional” means in a minute.
When I ask him how he feels about this Home Learning he says he doesn’t like it at all. Actually, he says he hates it. He’d rather play soccer and read. I would bet my father’s farm that 95% of kids in school would also say they don’t like homework either. And while I pity him and I totally see where he is coming from, homework is a fact of life.
We were two months into The Yelling when the school had a workshop explaining the “somewhat optional” policies on Home Learning. The students should do the assignment because on Friday the work is discussed in small groups in class. The groups then elect a student to give presentations about what they did during the week. So, my son can choose not to do any homework and there are no grading consequences, but there are peer consequences.
That’s when I realized I was part of the homework problem.
We all know the phrase “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” It’s the same with kids and homework. I was pulling him kicking and screaming to a banquet of knowledge and then trying to force feed him. Of course the more I pushed the more he dug in his heels and shut down. After the workshop at the school I realized I can present my son with the most beautiful desk, the perfect pencils, the ideal lighting, but it isn’t going magically make the learning flow into his head. He has to want to learn it for homework to make an impact.
And The Yelling isn’t going to help.
I am an organization development consultant and a life coach. I have worked with numerous people and groups in creating, articulating, and working towards goals – both personal and professional. I have never thought about learning from homework as a goal. Because it’s homework. It’s an unpleasant fact of life that you just do and move on. Like a colonoscopy. And if my son looks forward to homework with the same dread as I look forward to my first colonoscopy how can I expect my son to love his home learning?
And, again, The Yelling. But this time it’s in general frustration at the quirks of life.
“Isn’t there anything I can do?” you might ask.
Yes, there is.
It’s called becoming a Homework Facilitator.
The first step to becoming a Homework Facilitator is learning Use-of-Self. Use-of-self is creating mindfulness and intention in how we act in our daily lives and bringing attention to how our own actions and reactions affect situations. Part of my use-of-self is to recognize when I’m feeling frustrated, helpless, and/or angry and acknowledge that none of those feelings are going to help me get my son to stop flying his Transformers around the room and sit down to write his paper on Albert Einstein. My use-of-self is in taking a moment to examine the situation and thinking about what I can do and say that will be helpful in motivating him to work.
Use-of-self is also in realizing that he is making a choice not to sit down and do his homework. Just as that horse I mentioned above is choosing not to drink the delicious cool water that is before him. Now, is this a choice that I would have made? No. Are there going to be unpleasant consequences? Oh, yes. Do I want to strap him to the chair until he gets something, anything, done? Yes. But will it help? No, it will not. As with anything in life, if you don’t really want it for yourself it’s not going to happen.
Here’s where I get a little New-Agey-Touchy-Feely. We, as parents, need to ask ourselves some questions: What do we want for our child? What do we hope for them? Most of us would answer that we want them to be happy and successful. As Scott Dannemiller observed in his article The One Question Every Parent Should Quit Asking, wanting the best for our kids is different than wanting them to be the best.
“Wanting what’s best for your kids is all about the child. It’s about helping them find something they are passionate about so they are intrinsically driven to reveal the strengths that God gave them, whether in art, music, sports, writing, academics, or community service. Wanting them to be the best is all about me. My expectations. My fears.”
It’s hard, but what makes them happy is often times not what makes us happy. The tools they need to be successful come from lots of different sources, but mostly it comes from within themselves and their desire to achieve what makes them happy and interests them. Joseph Campbell said,
“If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.”
We need to let them figure out where they want to be and then help them figure out how to get there. We need to facilitate their journey.
To become a Homework Facilitator you first acknowledge that you are emotionally invested in his success and likely to be provoked by your child flying his Transformers toys around the room instead of sitting at his desk and doing his homework like you would if you were him. Just being conscious that he is ticking you off allows you to take a step back, regain your temper, and express your thoughts and feelings to him in a rational and calm way. Communicating how angry and frustrated you are is important because your child is angry and frustrated, too, but they are too young to be able to tell you. Instead Optimus Prime and Megatron are locked in a death match.
Here’s what you can do.
Step 1: Acknowledge to yourself she is making a choice. Whether she is choosing to play, actually doing her work, or sitting at the desk and whining herself to death, she is making a choice.
Step 2: Take a deep breath.
Step 3: Articulate the choices she is making to her. Tell her you realize she is choosing to play or whatever instead of doing her assigned homework. Tell her it is frustrating to you that she is putting it off and that this isn’t a choice you would make. She will hear you because you are not yelling. But don’t expect her to jump right to the desk and sit down to work.
If she is actually doing her homework without whining, tell her she is making that choice, too. It’s just as important she hear that you notice the choices you approve of and not just the ones you wish she wouldn’t make.
Step 4: Ask about consequences for not finishing the assigned work (i.e. the teacher’s goal for her and her goal for herself). Go through the scenario of what will happen if the paper, worksheet, etc isn’t finished. It will help her imagine what living the consequences would be like before she actually has to live with them for real.
Step 5: “What do you need to do your homework?” This isn’t the same as “How can I help you?” or “What can I do to help?” Take yourself out of it. This is her work, not yours. She might need your help, but she also might not. Using “you” and “your” will help her take ownership of the work and she will be more able to look at all the resources she will need to finish the work. If you see she is missing something in her list of resources prompt her with an “Is that all?” Or “Will that help you answer ____?” Of course, she may absolutely need your help or she might not. Let her figure it out.
Step 6: Back away. She may not be sitting at the desk. She may be reading a book instead of doing chapter 5 in her Algebra text. She may decide to go for a run. Take a deep breath. Tell her dinner is at 6, give her a kiss, and back away.
Will she do her homework? Maybe. Will there be consequences if she doesn’t do her homework? Yes. But she knows what the consequences are, she knows what she needs to get the work done, and she knows how long she has to get it done. The ball is in her court. The hardest thing to do is to honor your child’s choice when you don’t agree with it, but that is part of raising a child to be an adult. What if she waits until the last minute and then at 10pm she needs a ride to the Copy Mart or Target to get the work done? Well, that’s up to you. You set the limits you are comfortable with and capable of enforcing. Don’t be afraid to say yes. Don’t be afraid to say no.
Life is choices. Every day we adults make choices, good and bad. Those choices have consequences, both big and small. Letting my son face the consequences of not getting his homework done isn’t going to ruin his life. In the grand scheme it’s a small thing with impactful consequences. It’s a life lesson. Choosing to do his homework isn’t the path to success for my son. It is just a stepping stone to be trod upon on his path of finding his bliss.