Homework Survival Tips for Parents
By James Lehman, MSW
You graduated from school years ago. But you’re still dealing with homework every night for hours on end, and it’s no fun. If your child refuses to bring work home, won’t do it at night or gives you endless grief when you try to help, Empowering Parents has some answers for you. Here, James Lehman explains how to get your child to do his homework so that you can stop the nightly tug of war and stop doing the work for him.
Homework is often a barometer of what’s going on in the child’s life, and it’s easy for parents to misinterpret the issue. Sometimes the child can’t do the work because of a learning disability. Very often, the issue really isn’t the homework. The homework is what we call the “incident.” The issue is an unwillingness to do the work.
“There’s a difference between a bribe and a reward. If you bribe your child to do his homework, the kid has the power. In a reward program, the parent has the power.”
If the homework struggles you experience are part of a pattern of acting out behavior, then the child is doing it to get power over you. His intention is to do what he wants to do, when he wants to do it, and homework just becomes another battlefield. And, as on any other battlefield, parents can use tactics that succeed or tactics that fail.
It’s easy for parents to get into power struggles over homework. They’re concerned about their kids performing and getting a good education. Meanwhile, they work like dogs all day providing for the family. When they get home at night, they have to set up the evening, make dinner, do laundry, and help the kids with homework. The last thing they want to do is fight with their kids over it. So what tends to happen is parents take shortcuts, and it’s a trap they fall into. One shortcut can be doing the homework for the child. Parents do this especially with school projects. Another shortcut can also be yelling and fighting and screaming rather than putting an effective plan in place to get the work done. A shortcut can be bribing the child to do the work instead of rewarding him for doing it. We’ll talk more about that in a minute.
So how do you stop the battle and get your kids to do their homework?
1.Talk to your child’s teachers on a weekly basis. When you’re dealing with a child who has problems doing homework, you have to communicate with teachers weekly and on a detailed level. If it’s important to you that your child succeeds, then you have to work closely with the school. Because all you have otherwise is the kid’s word for it. Make sure that the amount of homework is appropriate for your child’s learning ability and style. Go to school conferences. Know what’s being assigned and how much. My son had ADD. I used to make him do all the homework, and it would take him longer, and it was difficult for him. Making him do the entire assignment was the theory base at the time. Then a new theory base came along that focused on getting kids to do what they can accomplish well in that time. If it takes the child the entire time to do two problems because he has ADD, and other kids can do all the problems, then that’s what he can do. He’ll learn just as much. Parents have to know what their kids are capable of. Don’t ask the teacher to give less than what’s necessary to learn the subject. But know if your child has some learning deficit, and talk to teachers about it.
Communicate with the school to determine what homework has been done and what hasn’t been done for the week. If your child has a chronic problem with homework, set up a system where, every Friday, the teacher informs you about what homework is owed for that week. Specifically, what pages in what books. Then, your child’s weekend should not start until that homework is done. If Friday comes along and it turns out that he has two more hours of homework to do, then he doesn’t get to start playing video games, get computer time or go out that night until that week’s homework is done.
2. Reward performance consistently. Every Friday that you get a note from the teacher saying that your child has done all the homework assigned for the week, your child gets a star or a check mark or a point. After so many stars, he gets a treat or reward, such as an activity he likes. It doesn’t have to be something that costs money. It can be going to the beach or the park with the parent or spending some time with the parent individually. If you’re setting up a system with a younger child, a reward can be that you take half an hour to sit down and play some games with your child that he likes.
Have a menu of rewards that your child will enjoy. Sit down and write up the menu with him. Don’t associate it with homework or anything else. Just find out what he likes to do. Your kid will probably say something like go to a concert or a sports event. Don’t discourage those things. Say, “Okay, that’s interesting.” Then keep going until you get a list of realistic things that your child will enjoy and work toward.
Remember earlier I said that one of the shortcuts we take as parents is bribing our kids rather than rewarding them for performance. It’s a subtle difference. A reward is something that has performance programmed into it. A bribe is something you give your child after negotiating with him over something that is already a responsibility. For instance, if my son got B’s or above, he got a certain reward, which was linked to what we could afford. It was a reward for his performance. A bribe is this: “If you do this tonight, I’ll do this for you on Saturday.” It changes the balance of power. In a reward program, the parent has the power. When you’re rewarding performance with stars or checks, and the child is completing the work and earning an activity or thing he likes, you have the power. If you’re bribing your child to do his homework, the kid has the power.
3.Withhold activities consistently, especially with older kids. Reward adolescents and teenagers with things that older kids like to do: going to the mall unsupervised, spending time on the phone, having a phone, spending time on the computer, having a computer in their room, going to parties, dances and sports activities. Withhold the things that are important to them if the work doesn’t get done. If the kid’s homework isn’t finished by Friday afternoon, the weekend doesn’t start until the homework is done. Don’t give in to, “Oh, there’s a football game, and they’re depending on me.” Too bad. If you can hold true to this rule once, and deal with the behavior, next week the homework will be done.
4. Have your child maintain a homework log. Monitor and maintain it throughout the week with the child. Check off what gets done, and let him know that if he’s dishonest, you’ll be talking with the teacher, and he’ll just have to make it up on Friday and delay his weekend if he doesn’t do it.
5. Don’t let kids do homework on the computer in their room if you can avoid it. Have them use the family computer if possible. If they do it in their room, the door to the room should be open, and you should check in from time to time. No text messaging, no fooling around. Take the phone away. It doesn’t matter who bought it, who owns it, etc. It’s in your house. Use of it should be controlled by you.
6. Use hurdle help, as described in The Total Transformation Program. Help them when they’re stuck. Help them come up with ideas. It’s okay to brainstorm with your child as long as he’s doing the work. Do not do the work for your child. The work is his responsibility. Not yours.
7. Stay the course. You’ve got to hold true to what you decide. Expect the child to resist and act out. But stick with it regardless. After he misses one or two football games, trips to the mall or nights out, he’ll decide it isn’t worth it, and he’ll do the work. Know what’s important to your child, and use the ability to have and use those things as a reward for getting work done.
8. Be prepared to let the child fail. Then manage their life around failure. Example: “If you get a D, your phone will be taken away until you bring it up to a B.” Communicate with the teacher. Don’t give the phone back until the grade is back up to a B. Don’t get stuck in the trap of, “But my son bought the phone, therefore he has a right to it.” He doesn’t. The right to use it is earned.
Put this plan in place with your child at a time when things are calm and going well. Not in the heat of an argument. Tell your child that you’re going to try something different this year with homework that will make it go better for everyone, then explain the system. You’ll find that adding this little bit of structure at home will do three things: 1.) make your life easier as a parent, 2.) make you more effective as a parent, and 3.) help your child to get the work done.
7 Ways to Stop the Parent-Child Power Struggle Over Homework
By Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
Do you find yourself in full-on homework battles most nights of the week? It’s no surprise that most children and teens will dig in their heels when it comes to doing schoolwork. Think of it this way: How many kids want to do something that isn’t particularly exciting or pleasant? Most would prefer to be playing video games, riding their bikes or driving around with friends, especially after a long day of school and activities.
As long as you believe you are accountable (or to blame) for your child’s outcome, you are under her control.
The underlying truth here is that you and your child might already be caught in a power struggle over this. Like most parents, you probably want your children to do well and be responsible. Maybe you worry about your child’s future. After all, doing homework and chores are your child’s prime responsibilities, right? Let’s face it, it’s easy to get anxious when your kids are not doing what they’re supposed to be doing—and when you know how important doing schoolwork is. And when you believe you are ultimately responsible for the choices your child makes (and many of us do, consciously and unconsciously), the ante is upped and the tug of war begins.
Nagging, Lecturing and Yelling—But Nothing Changes?
If you’re in the habit of threatening, lecturing, questioning your child, nagging or even screaming at them “do the work!” (and trust me, we’ve all been there), you probably feel like you’re doing whatever it takes to get your kids on track. But when you’re in your child’s head, there’s no room for him to think for himself. And unfortunately, the more anxious you are, the more you’ll hold on in an attempt to control him and push him toward the task at hand. What happens then? Your child will resist by pushing back. That’s when the power struggle ensues. Your child, in essence, is saying, “I own my own life—stay out!” Now the battle for autonomy is getting played out around homework and chores, and exactly what you feared and hoped to avoid gets created.
This is very aggravating for parents to say the least. Many of us get trapped into thinking we are responsible for our child’s choices in life. As long as you believe you are accountable (or to blame) for your child’s outcome, you are under their control. This is because you will need your child to make those good choices—do the work—so you will feel that you’re doing a good job. Your child’s behavior becomes a reflection of you. You are now at your child’s mercy as you trying to get him to do what you want him to do so you can feel validated as a good parent. Your child does not want to be taking care of your emotional well-being, so he will naturally resist.
When kids are not following through on their responsibilities, it can easily trigger a number of feelings in parents. Note that your child did not cause these feelings, but rather triggered feelings that already belong to you. You might be triggered by a feeling of anger because you feel ineffective or fear that your child will never amount to anything. Or you might feel guilt about not doing a good enough job as a parent. Here’s the truth: You have to be careful not to let these triggered feelings cause you to push your kids harder so that you can feel better. One of the toughest things parents have to do is learn how to soothe their own difficult feelings rather than ask their children to do that for them. This is the first step in avoiding power struggles.
Why are power struggles important to avoid? They inadvertently create just what you’ve feared. Your child is living his life in reaction to you rather than making his own independent choices. Learning how to make those choices is a necessary skill that develops self-motivation. How can you avoid ending up in these battles? Here are 7 tips that can really help.
1. You are not responsible for your child’s choices. Understand that you are not responsible for the choices your child makes in his life. It’s impossible to take on that burden without a battle for control over another human being. Measure your success as a parent by how you behave—not by what your child chooses to do or not do. Doing a good job as a parent means that you have done all that you can do as a responsible person. It does not mean that you have raised a perfect person who has made all the right choices. Once you really get this, you won’t be so anxious about your child’s behaviors, actions, and decisions. You will be able to see your child from objective, not subjective, lenses and therefore be able to guide their behavior, because you’ll have seen what he actually needs.
2. You cannot make someone care—but you can influence them. You cannot get a person to do or care about what they don’t want to do or care about. Our kids have their own genetics, roles, and ultimately their own free will. So focusing on getting your child to change or getting something from her will not work long-term and will most often turn into a power struggle. What you can do is try to influence your child using only what is in your own hands. For example, when it comes to homework, you can structure the environment to create the greatest probability that the work will get done.
3. Think about the “fences” you’d like to create for your child. Take charge of your own best thinking and decisions rather than trying to control your child’s. Pause, think and decide what fences you want to create for your child. What are your bottom lines? Know what you can and can’t do as a parent. Recognize that what will make the biggest difference to your child (and helping him become a responsible kid who makes good choices) will be learning how to inspire him, not control him. Building a positive relationship with your kids is your best parenting strategy. Children want to please the people in their lives that they have loving feelings toward. You cannot ultimately make them accept your values, but you can inspire them to do so. Getting a child to listen to you is primarily about setting up the conditions under which they choose to do so. In order to do this, make a conscious effort to sprinkle your relationship with more positive interactions than negative ones. Hug, show affection, laugh together, and spend time with one another. Point out your appreciations most instead of constantly correcting, instructing, teaching, yelling, complaining, or reprimanding. Don’t get me wrong, you need to correct and reprimand as a parent. But make a conscious effort so that every time you do this, you will follow it with many positive interactions. The human brain remembers the negatives much more than the positives. Most kids will be happy to listen and be guided by the people in their lives who they like and respect.
4. Should you give consequences when kids don’t do homework? Parents always ask whether or not they should give consequences to kids if they don’t do their homework—or instead just let the chips fall where they may. I think you can give consequences, and that might work temporarily—maybe even for a while. Perhaps your child will learn to be more responsible or to use anxiety about the consequences to motivate themselves. You can’t change someone else, but consequences might help them get some homework done. You can’t “program” your child to care about their work, but you can create a work environment that promotes a good work ethic. Kids who regularly get their homework done and study do better throughout school and overall in life.
5. How structuring the environment can encourage studying. Again, you can’t make a child do anything that he doesn’t feel like doing, but you can structure his environment to create the greatest probability that the work will get done. When your child’s grades slip, or you find that he’s not getting his work in on time, you are automatically “invited in” to supervise and help him get on track. You can make sure that for certain periods of time, he will not be able to do anything other than schoolwork. The rule is during that time, no electronics are allowed—just homework and studying. By doing this, you are providing a structure to do what your child probably can’t do yet for himself. The hour and a half that you set aside should be a time when you will be around to enforce the rules that you have set. Give a fixed amount of time and once that time is up, your child is free to go elsewhere, homework done or not. Stay consistent with this plan, even if he fights you on it. This plan will accomplish the possibility that your child will get some homework done and maybe over time, create some better work habits. That’s all. This plan should be in place, whether or not he has homework. He can read, review or study if he doesn’t have any during that time. Let him know that these rules will change when his grades begin to reflect his potential and when you are not getting negative reports from teachers about missing homework. When he accomplishes this, tell him you will be happy to have him be fully in charge of his own homework.
6. Parents of Defiant kids. Extremely defiant kids who don’t seem to care about consequences really try their parents. Some of these kids suffer from ADHD, ODD, learning disabilities, emotional issues and many other issues. Defiance has become a way for them to try and solve their problems. With defiant kids, parents need to be very cognizant of working to develop positive relationships, no matter how difficult. Above all, work to avoid getting pulled into a power struggle. Your child will need many more learning opportunities and more rewards and negative consequences—and more time to learn these lessons than less defiant child. And if nothing changes, and your child continues to be defiant, you must continue to work on your own patience and be thoughtful about your own bottom line. Most important, continue to love your child and keep showing up.
7. Your simple message to your child. Be clear, concise and direct. Your simple message to your kids, which does not require lectures or big sit down conversations is, “Your job is to take care of your responsibilities, which includes getting your homework done and helping out in the house. That’s my expectation for you. Once you’ve done that each day, you are welcome to do what you’d like.” Remember, as a parent your job is to essentially help your child do her job.