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John Rosemond: Homework and other life skills

Posted: September 30, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: September 30, 2012 2:00 a.m.

With the advent of a new school year, it seems appropriate to tackle the issue of homework: more specifically, the question of how involved parents should be and how parents can limit their involvement to only what is necessary.

As for the question of how involved parents should be, my unequivocal answer is “not much, if at all.” I am a member of the last generation of kids to do their own homework. We had to because our parents simply expected it of us. Furthermore, I distinctly remember teachers telling us that if there was evidence of parental help on an assignment , it would be graded down. Apparently, those adults knew that accepting personal responsibility would carry one further in life than mere good grades.

By and large, today’s parents are enmeshed, entangled and enmired in their children’s homework. The result may be better grades (in the short run, as long as the parent in question maintains his or her involvement), but the weakening of personal responsibility. When, I ask, are administrators, parents and teachers going to get it? Over the past 40 or so years, student achievement has been going down as parental involvement has been going up.

I have been a contrarian voice concerning this issue for a long time. During said long time, I have met many, many parents who have extracted themselves from their children’s homework and successfully resisted peer and school pressure to become re-involved. To a person, they testify that after a period of adjustment of anywhere from a month to a grading period, their children began doing better than ever in school. This should not surprise. For one thing, the child who knows that his parents are not orchestrating his homework chores will pay better attention in class.

For those parents who are enmeshed, entangled and enmired and want to experience the joys of homework liberation as well as the immense pleasure of watching a child accept responsibility and perform better as a consequence, my advice is three-fold:

First, assign said child his or her very own personal homework place, preferably in his or her very own personal bedroom. That assignment goes a long way toward sending the message “Your homework is indeed your homework.”

Second, stand at the ready to serve as a consultant, but set a limit. You might, for instance, make a rule that you will provide assistance on three occasions per evening and that no such occasion can last longer than five minutes. Suggest to your child that he do all that he can do on his own and then bring the three most vexing homework problems to you. If my experience serves me well, within three months your child will be bringing no more than one problem to you per evening. In the process, he will have discovered that he’s far more capable than he thought he was!

Third, set a limit on how late your child can work on homework. Having to put homework away, whether finished or not, at a certain time will force your child to begin managing his time more efficiently — yet another important life skill.

Begin enjoying the many fruits of retro-parenting!    

I estimate that one-fourth of the questions parents ask me involve issues or behaviors that merit little if any concern. Some of the “problems” in question are normal to certain stages of development. Others are nothing more than little glitches that will resolve themselves in time (and might develop into real problems if people respond to them as such). And some are reflections of personality (or temperament), which is inborn and therefore fairly fixed, although not immutable. These include things like shyness, which most shy people figure out how to successfully compensate for by early adulthood. Here’s a short list of things parents needn’t worry themselves about:

Preschool children who have imaginary friends, even if the child in question seems to believe the friend is real. These inventions, which typically appear during the third or fourth years of life, are nothing more than the product of a young child’s rapidly developing imagination. I almost always recommend that parents play along with these additions to the family. After all, the child with an imaginary friend is going to occupy himself better and ask for a lot less parental attention than would otherwise be the case. That’s a win-win!

Tantrums during early to middle toddlerhood, even when the child seems to be completely out of control (“He acts crazy!”). At this age, tantrums are an expression of a child’s reluctance to accept that he isn’t the Grand Poobah. Granted, parents should definitely not give in to them, and it might be a good idea to assign (or take) the child to his room until the storm passes, but in and of themselves, tantrums at this age are nothing to get in a tizzy about.

Thumbsucking. Early on, some kids figure out how to self-calm by sucking their thumbs; some don’t. I’ve never figured out a reliable way of getting a thumb-sucking child to stop, but I have found that when parents try to force a child to stop, the usual result is an increase in thumbsucking. As for dental problems, nearly all kids are going to have to have braces, whether they suck their thumbs or not.

Night terrors. These are to be distinguished from nightmares, which cause children to wake up. Night terrors occur when a child seems to get stuck in a hallucinatory state between sleeping and waking. They are not reflective of psychological problems, but they can be quite anxiety-arousing for parents. When one occurs, don’t wake the child abruptly. Just prevent him from hurting himself, hold him (unless he refuses to be held), talk soothingly, and wait for it to pass.

The child is obviously no more than run-of-the-mill in the IQ department. So? Have you ever been to a high school reunion? If so, you surely noticed that a good number of folks who were not especially good students have managed to hold decent jobs, pay their bills, stay married to one person, raise well-behaved children, and develop interesting hobbies. Why, more than a few successful people (however one defines successful) never even went to college! Did you know that president Harry Truman did not have a college degree?

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his website at


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