Not all parents want to help their children with homework. But many do, or feel they should. For these parents, sitting with their children as they struggle through their homework – often as if it were a form of aversion therapy – can be frustrating to the point of infuriation. After all, where is the joy in trying to help a child for whom the act of writing even a five-word sentence seems to be a special type of torture? The exercise becomes an exhausting one for parents: just one more chore on top of a long work day followed by a long and stressful commute; something begrudged. As a result, parents must be careful lest helping their children morphs into impatient correction, even punishment. At the root of the problem, here, are parents too fatigued and/or stressed by their workday to appreciate what time with their children (even study time) really is.

Some years ago, I was teaching a business ethics course and had occasion to point out how parents have a duty to ensure that the demands of work do not unfairly take precedent over their children’s need for parental participation in their lives. One middle aged student became quite exorcised over my comments responding emphatically that she worked hard all day. Didn’t she deserve some peace and quiet? I suspect that the student was equally emphatic in demanding peace and quiet from her children, as well, and wonder if what she described as a little piece and quiet didn’t last until bedtime.

It seems to me that the student’s response was grounded in two unstated assumptions. First, since the student worked hard to support her kids, they owed her time by herself once she got home. Second, work was frustrating enough. How could the student be expected to bear the extra frustration that comes of trying to help with assignments neither she nor her child can understand?

Personal experience compels our sympathy for this student – there have been evenings when we have all parented as if we were “dead men walking.” I cannot help but wonder, however, if my student had not lost sight of the reasons for having children in the first place, the first of these being to enjoy them. To remember our children are to be enjoyed is to acknowledge that a life which renders us too fatigued and alienated to enjoy our children must be something of a failure.

Predictably, my student’s children will take her demand that they leave her in peace as role modelling. From her, they will learn to feel both overwhelmed by their school day and entitled to retreat from it into the solace and solitude offered by electronic nets and webs. Then, should my student demand that her children do homework, it will seem to them like an unwarranted intrusion on their peace and quiet! In that event, my student can expect mutual screaming matches followed by the hysterical exchange of threats rendered empty by the need of mother and children to retreat into their respective spheres of quiet … if not of peace.

As parents, we should enjoy our children because it is what our children want of us. They want us to enjoy their accomplishments, their activities, their progress and they want us to enjoy our participation in what they do. In nursery school, kindergarten and the early grades of public school there is the recognition, both by parents and educators, that time must be allowed for “show and share” (in my day it was known as “show and tell”). Show and share goes beyond the child’s standing up in front of the class and showing off her favourite toy or book. It extends to the child’s desire to show her parents what she has done at school on the expectation that they will praise and appreciate it. The child expects the opportunity and prompting which will allow her to explain what her work is about and what she is expressing in it.

Sadly, by about grade 4, the child’s need to show and share, especially with her parents, starts to get less attention. By grade 6, the child’s showing and sharing is often a thing ossified within the rituals of sporting events or Christmas and spring concerts – and then only for children who are lucky enough to participate. This is a shame. For it is in the child’s volunteering to show and share their school work with parents that the template for effective parental participation in a child’s homework is presented.

So, how do we, as parents, get our children to show and share with us at homework time? We start by finding time after work to sit with our children and give them our undivided attention – after all, children learn to concentrate by watching us concentrate on them. Once they have our attention, we should ask our children how school is going. And then we should listen – even when our children tell us what they don’t like about school. Listening to what a child does not like requires that we not rush to judgment of either our child or of the school. It does require that we ask them to elaborate. Also, we should empathize, telling similar stories from our own experience if we can. Above all, we should be reassuring, letting our children know that problems will get solved and its not the end of the world if they don’t get solved today. Remember, it is not a rule of listening that a problem be solved on the night that it is introduced. Listening allows both the child and parent to go away and think about what they’ve heard so they revisit it more thoughtfully another day.

A second part of listening requires that we ask our children about assignments on a regular basis. We begin by getting our children to explain what they have to do and what they have done so far, an exercise that will necessitate leading questions on our part. When listening, its always important to compliment our children on their efforts and insights. Its also a good idea to make suggestions (to be written down by our children) on how they might proceed, but only if suggestions are needed. When our children are ready to start an assignment or exercise, we can work to insure they understand it. Once they do, however, we must leave them to do it themselves. Likewise, when working with work sheets or problem sheets, our job is to ensure that our children understand the instructions and the steps involved in solving the problems assigned. After that, they should be on their own. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be physically present while our children are working. An especially good environment for homework is the kitchen table whilst other family members are engaged in after dinner chores. However, once we have let our children show and share their homework with us, we should be confident that they can finish it on their own.

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