Ending Homework Battles

Ending Homework Battles

Picture of Meri Wallace
Meri Wallace

Meri Wallace, LCSW, a parenting expert and child and family therapist for over thirty years, grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Meri completed her Masters degree in Social Work at NYU, specializing in child development. Meri writes a blog for “Psychology Today”, and is the author of “Birth Order Blues” (Henry Holt and Co.) and “Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old” (Barron's Educational Series.) She has been a columnist for Sesame Street Parents, New York Family Magazine,and Brooklyn Parent and has been a consultant to Children’s Television Workshop. She is frequently interviewed by national publications including Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, and Parents Magazine.

Children naturally resist homework to one degree or another

Dad walks by his 14-year-old daughter Sophie’s room and sees that she is talking on the phone. He is enraged. It is 8:30 P.M. and she has not started her homework. Dad yells at her, “Get off the phone.” She screams back, “Later,” and the daily battle has begun. Threats fly, tears flow and doors slam.

This is not an unusual story. Children naturally resist homework to one degree or another. After a long day of concentrating at school, coping with pop quizzes and other stresses, and participating in soccer, ballet or football, most kids feel tired and would rather call a friend or play a game. Furthermore, many kids experience homework as being forced upon them by their parents and feel angry and resentful.

In the situation above, like most parents, Dad’s expectations are high. He loves his daughter and worries that if Sophie does not do her homework, she might fail in school. He believes that it is his job to prevent this from happening. If his own parents handled a similar situation by screaming at him, he may unconsciously be repeating the same approach with Sophie.

Other issues from a parent’s past can come into play and intensify these conflicts. If this father took school very seriously, and it was an area of life in which he succeeded, he may feel enraged that Sophie is not relating to her work in the same way. He may become equally distraught if he failed miserably in school and wants desperately for his daughter to do better.

As we can see, homework is ripe for parent/child battles and must be managed carefully.

An important goal for parents is to communicate respectfully with their child, stress the importance of homework, and provide the needed guidance and support the child requires. Here are some steps a parent can take to end homework battles:

Stay calm: If your child is resisting doing his homework, and you feel a scream coming on, take some deep breaths, count to 10, or walk out of the room for a few minutes. If you start to fight, both you and your child will get upset, your child will co-operate less and may even feel too stressed to work. It’s better to approach your child supportively and make this a fact-finding and teaching moment.

Talk, don’t yell: Set a limit in a positive way. Dad might simply point to his watch or tell his daughter the facts in a straightforward way, for instance, “It’s 8:15 and you need to start your homework.” She’ll feel more respected and ready to cooperate. Always keep in mind that in the final analysis your child’s self-esteem and your relationship are more important than the homework.

Go over the rules: Having helpful rules in place, such as, homework is done right after school, or there are no phone conversations until you finish your homework, is more effective than relitigating the issues each day. Some parents help their child prepare a weekly schedule at the beginning of the school year and include some allotted time to speak with friends or play games.

Explain the reason for homework: Stress that homework is required by the teacher, that it has positive value, and it is part of every student’s responsibility. You might tell him that the goal of homework is for kids to review the material that was covered in class so it will be absorbed better. It also helps children to develop organizational, time management, and problem-solving skills, so they can function well in life. This comprehension will diminish the perception that you are forcing the work upon him and will make him less combative. If children understand at an early age that homework is an important part of their job, it is more likely to become part of the daily routine.

Acknowledge her feelings: If your child is resisting her work and says, “I hate homework” or “I don’t want to do it,” accept and acknowledge her emotions. You might say, for instance, “I know it’s hard for you to do work after school. You’ve worked hard all day and you’d rather relax.” (She still will need to do it, of course.) If you fight her feelings she will become angry, and resist you. When your child becomes overwhelmed by a task, and panics or becomes tearful, tell her, “I can see this work is hard for you,” and reassure her that she will be able to work it through. When possible try not to jump in to solve a problem but guide her by discussing possible solutions. When you are understanding, she will be more likely to calm down and do her work. Sensitivity, flexibility, and compromise tend to be the most effective approaches.

Open up a dialogue: In the scenario above, Dad needs to ask Sophie why she did not start her homework, and then listen attentively to her explanation. Maybe her friend had called about a problem, and Sophie was trying to support her. Then, Dad could help her to think through better solutions. For instance she might tell her friend, “I’ll talk to you for a few minutes now, and call you back when I’m done with my homework.”

If your child resists homework every night, explore all the possible causes of the problem. Are there any physical problems that are interfering with the task? Is he getting enough sleep? Is he tired because he is overscheduled with too many activities? Determine if your child is avoiding his homework because he doesn’t understand the work and needs help. If you cannot provide the assistance, find a family member who can or arrange for a tutor. A high school student might be able to work effectively with your child at a lower cost. Often, an objective person is a good idea to help you end daily homework battles, in any case.

Examine whether your child is having any emotional problems at school: Maybe your child isn’t getting along with her teacher or is dealing with some tough social issues such as bullying or cliques. If this is the case, you might consider seeking help from a school counselor or a mental health professional outside of school.

To cover every base, make sure to examine your family situation: Is it possible that your child feels that her sibling gets a great deal of praise as the “genius” of the family and she feels that she cannot compete? Maybe the new baby in your home is capturing most of your attention. Perhaps you have gotten busier at work and are less available. Sometimes a child can drag out the homework or engage in battles to keep your focus on her. To a child negative attention is often better than none.

Examine your role: Some well-intentioned parents become overly involved in their child’s work and take over responsibility for the homework. This approach communicates to the child that he should rely upon the parent and that the parent might not believe the child is capable of accomplishing the work on his own. Before you know it, the child will develop the maddening pattern of being unable to start his work on his own. He is used to the parent jump-starting the process. If you micromanage your child’s homework, he will not learn the skills he needs to do it independently.

It will help if you avoid sitting next to your child or standing over her as she does her work. Many battles begin over the child’s natural dawdling, such as dropping pencils or sitting upside down in her chair, and if you witness such behavior you are very likely to get upset. Children have a hard time sitting still and will need to do their dance to release tension. If you watch her too closely doing her homework, you might also observe her mistakes and be inclined to correct her. Your child needs to go through her own trial-and-error process to solve problems and might arrive at the right answer by herself if she perseveres. If you critique her too much, it can make her feel insecure, and she might conclude that you know the answers better than she does and cause her to become more reliant on you. You also do not want to communicate that only perfection will do. She may be afraid to try and resist her work.

Self-analysis: It is crucial for parents to examine their early experiences with school and homework, and change their approach if any underlying patterns are adding to the stress in the parent/child relationship. For instance, if Dad recognizes that his own father was a screamer, he might take a step back, remember how badly this made him feel, and try to approach the situation more calmly.

Teach your child skills: If your child has an upcoming project that is overwhelming him, you might help him break down the tasks, prioritize the steps, and set up a schedule so it will not be a rushed job at the end. It’s also helpful to teach your child some relaxation skills to use when he becomes tense, such as deep breathing or taking a short walk.

Your job as a parent is to take an interest in your child’s work, be supportive and encouraging, and help your child learn the skills she needs. Most of all, you want her to grow up feeling self-confident, independent, and capable of handling life’s challenges on her own.