Advice For Parents on Homework

This was an interesting summary I found on “The Marshall Memo”, I especially like the historical perspective on the reasons why homework exists:

8. Advice for Parents on Homework
“Homework has a branding problem,” says author Bruce Feiler in this New York Times article. “Or, to be a little less pointy-headed about it, everybody hates homework.” But this hasn’t always been so. “Parents have been having these battles since before electric lighting,” he says. In the 19th century, homework was popular because people viewed the brain as a muscle that needed to be strengthened by nightly exertion. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a backlash against repetitive drills, and by the 1940s, homework was out of favor. Then Sputnik got people panicked about the U.S. falling behind the Soviets and lots of homework was part of the solution. There was another dip in the 1960s, and then A Nation at Risk caused yet another surge in the 1980s. Today we’re hearing from both sides: Chinese kids are doing six hours of homework before breakfast! No, play is more important than make-work and Google wants employees who are creative.
In Feiler’s own household, the homework wars come down to squabbles over several questions, and he went looking for answers from experts:
• Do children need to work at their own desks or is the kitchen table okay? Eva Pomerantz, a specialist on parent involvement at the University of Illinois, likes the kitchen table because a parent is usually around, increasing the chance of connections, but is busy preparing meals, which makes it less likely they’ll do the homework themselves. But it depends on your house, she says: “If you have a crazy, noisy kitchen, that’s probably not the place for your kids to be doing homework unless they have amazing concentration.”
• Is it okay for children to do homework sprawled on their beds? “It’s not about the kid being on their bed while they do their homework,” says Erika Patall, a University of Texas expert on motivation and achievement. “It’s about the extent to which they’re really engaged and attentive to their work.” Young people vary in their preference for bright or dim lighting and sitting up or lying down. If the kid is falling asleep, looking out the window, or on the phone, then bed homework is a problem.
• How about listening to music or doing FaceTime with friends? Patall says the research on multitasking is pretty clear: “People tend to be very bad multitaskers, even people who say, ‘I’m a great multitasker.’” Doing other things extends the time homework takes and erodes the quality of work.
• Should parents go over homework to check for errors? “If you’re concerned that imperfect homework makes you look bad, that’s problematic,” says Pomerantz. But regularly looking over homework may help students put in more effort and catch their own mistakes.
• Should parents criticize sloppy homework or stick to encouragement? “You don’t always have t
o be upbeat,” says Patall. “You don’t want to deliver critical messages that imply things can’t be fixed. So you never want to say things like, ‘You’re stupid.’ But pointing out a situation where they should try harder would certainly be justified.”
• What will make children more self-motivated? The key is to give them as much control over their homework as possible, says Pomerantz, who has to fight her own tendency to be controlling. She tells her children how hard she works and says she expects them to do the same. “If you give them space to be self-reliant,” she says, “they usually will take it.”

“The Homework Squabbles” by Bruce Feiler in The New York Times, September 14, 2014,


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