Whose Homework Is it Anyway?
A new school year is just beginning, and millions of parents are eager to get started on their kids' homework. Here's my cautionary tale for them:
Each third-grader in my daughter's school researched an endangered species and wrote a report. My daughter Marie had been assigned the manatee, the gentle Florida sea cow that is being killed off by speedboat propellers. She gathered the data, but couldn't get started writing.
I thought: Here's where being my child will really pay off for her. As a student, report-writing was the one thing I did well. Perhaps you've read my eighth-grade treatise on the man who killed Alexander Hamilton — "Aaron Burr: Genius or Fiend?" If you have, you know I'm just the guy to help a young writer start clicking.
"Do it in three parts," I advised. "First, describe manatees — what they look like, where they live, what they eat, and so on. Second, explain why they are endangered. And third, say what's being done to help them; take a look at their future."
With that, Marie burst into tears and ran upstairs to her room.
Fifteen minutes later, she came back and slapped down a piece of lined paper in front of me. She had distilled her research into 36 quickly chosen words, written in a wild scrawl that looked like a serial killer's confession:
"1. Manatees are dumb. They move slow because they're stupid. 2. The boats run them over because manatees are too dumb to get away. 3. I wish all manatees are dead so I wouldn't have to write about them. The End."
"Nice work," I said.
"Thanks," she said, with a bitter smile. Then, writer's block dislodged, she went back up to her room and, using my outline, wrote a more temperate report. It lacked the passion of her first draft, but it was more informative.
The "A" we got on manatees lured me deeper into her homework. By the time we were halfway through fourth grade, I was grilling her about her assignments, deciding when she should do them, and telling her how.
Unfortunately, this was causing Marie to disengage. We hit bottom one day when Marie was so vague about her assignments it was like interrogating a captured spy. So I marched right over to the school to quiz her teacher. Walking home, it struck me that the next logical step would be for me to do the homework and put it into Marie's backpack for the teacher to find.
Then my wife brought home a book, Ending the Homework Hassle by John Rosemond. Its main premise is: "The more responsibility you take for your child's homework, the less responsibility your child will take." Although Rosemond offers instructions for handling the relatively few kids who won't accept the responsibility, his book cites case after case of dopey parents getting overinvolved in their kids' homework. It was unpleasant seeing myself as a textbook case, but if you want it sugar-coated, Rosemond is not your man.
As per his instructions, I told Marie, "You're a smart kid, and I know you can handle the responsibility of your homework. It's yours; I'm giving it back to you. Tell me if you have a problem."
That's when Marie started managing her time and accepting responsibility. Crises still occurred, but they were infrequent. Sometimes deadlines appeared from out of nowhere. Sometimes assignments were interpreted by Marie in such a way as to be impossible. Then we'd help, but otherwise, we left it up to her. And to my embarrassment, Marie's grades improved.
Rosemond robbed me of my chance to improve on my own spotty grade-school performance, but he sure straightened out Marie's situation.
That same year, Marie saw her first manatees. They lounged lazily in a darkened aquarium at SeaWorld, while across campus their flashy cousins, the dolphins, won applause with brilliant feats of playful athleticism.
Obviously the manatee trainers hadn't read Rosemond's book. The idle creatures floated around figuring someone else would jump in and do their tricks for them. To a lover of performing aquatic mammals like myself, it was heartbreaking. As entertainers, those poor manatees were already extinct.
Rick Epstein can be reached at email@example.com.