A Little Light Reading

Beth Harpaz, a writer in my neighborhood, has a very funny new book, 13 is the New 18: And other things my children taught me while I was having a nervous breakdown being their mother. Not surprisingly, she talks about her trials and tribulations with homework. Happily, she doesn’t cave in to the school’s request that she log into the school’s web site every night, download her son’s homework, and made sure he does it.

I had thought that they do not like so-called “helicopter mommies” who hover over their darling’s every misstep and try to fix it. I had naively been led to believe that it was better, at this age, to let your kid figure out how to solve his own problems, or allow him to suffer the consequences, rather than intervene and solve his problems for him.”

Besides, she writes,

I already went to ninth grade. And when I was in ninth grade, I did all my homework. And my mother didn’t even have to check it for me. I really just don’t feel like it’s fair to make anyone on this earth responsible for ninth grade more than once in a lifetime.

Like every parent, Harpaz genuinely want her son to do well in school; she just doesn’t want him “doing the homework solely to avoid getting hassled by me.” Eventually she asks other parents for advice, and finally takes solace in a story from a mother of a brilliant boy who couldn’t cope with school, ended up getting a GED, and later on lands a job with a high-tech firm.

That mother had sought help from a therapist who told her

t was not the parents’ job to serve as rules enforcer for the school. Yes, you can help with homework if they ask; you can create a schedule that sets aside a reasonable amount of time each day to do homework, but you are not the homework policeman … If they don’t do their schoolwork, they have to deal with the consequences, even if the consequences mean failure.

Harpaz says the other mother also told her that what is the parents’ job is

to make sure that kids grow up to be decent, independent, fully functioning human beings. So simple, and yet so overwhelming. It’s actually easier to be the homework policeman than to play Pygmalion and shape a soulless lump of clay into a good person.

(Copyright Beth Harpaz. From 13 is the New 18: And other things my children taught me while I was having a nervous breakdown being their mother. Her blog is 13isthenew18.com)

8 thoughts on “A Little Light Reading

  1. “If they don’t do their schoolwork, they have to deal with the consequences, even if the consequences mean failure.”

    The only way this can work is if you trust the schools not to harm your child. I’m not so trusting any more. What if the school put your child in a totally inappropriate math class, so that no matter how hard she tries, she can’t possibly succeed? What if the teacher thinks it’s reasonable to deny recess for a month to a child who didn’t complete her reading on time? What if the school dumps so much work on your child that she can’t possibly do it all without sacrificing her health?

    Maybe “let the child deal with the consequences” is good advice for some kids in some schools, but if you’re dealing with a crazy school (or teacher), you’re just throwing your child to the wolves. And let’s not forget the huge power disparity between a child and her teachers.

    A friend of mine has four kids, of whom the oldest is nine. They’re all attending the public school my daughter used to attend. My friend says, “I don’t get involved in the homework — I let the kids work it out with the teacher”. To me that’s like saying, “I let the chickens work it out with the fox”.


  2. Beth writes; “If they don’t do their schoolwork, they have to deal with the consequences, even if the consequences mean failure.”

    To which FedUpMom responds: The only way this can work is if you trust the schools not to harm your child. I’m not so trusting any more.


    I agree with FedUpMom. To meander on a tangent, I’ve already written that the children who are the most maligned in the school system are the ones who are highly gifted (I know the G word is loaded, but I can no more change that fact than I can the color of her eyes. Believe me, I’m no elitist about these things, I’m an unschooler at heart. Hyper-competitive anxious baby boomer mother, overly invested in my child’s achievements, I am NOT!) combined with an exceptionality such as ADD or a disability. Teachers who don’t get these children bully them.

    On a homeschool site I still subscribe to, mothers wrote that often the worst bullyers are the teachers and that is why they left. I was chatting with a friend whose son is profoundly gifted, was doing Algebra II at age 8 and presented with ADD along with somewhere on the Aspergers spectrum (yea, I know Aspergers is on the autistic spectrum but as my daughter asserts, there needs to be an Aspergers spectrum, since it is really not typical autism). This teacher would post the names of the children who had not completed their homework on the blackboard. The goal? To frighten them into doing their homework because these quiet children would rather sink through a hole and disappear than be publicly humiliated.

    Kids with ADD and/or Aspergers are already socially awkward and have a very hard time making friends. That they are brilliant does not mean the parents don’t gnash their teeth, hoping the child will make at least one friend.

    I keep hearing this story from that school. Teachers making fun of these kids, embarrassing them publicly, and shunning them either overtly or unwittingly. One friend had to pull her son from the gifted center because the teacher regularly advertised the boy’s IEP requirements to the entire class. Argue with me, convince me this is not abuse. You’ll have to try very hard.

    I’d really like to hear from some teachers. The good ones, the dedicated ones, the ones who love children. I know you are out there. This is no time to be complacent. Please tell me why some teachers would hurt a child in this way. It happened to us. More than once.


  3. I’ve always thought that if parents stopped helping their kids with homework, then teachers would quickly realize how much (or how little) the kids were actually capable of. And, at least in the younger grades, I thought that would be the easiest way to get rid of homework.

    Imagine if every parent of a K-4 child never mentioned homework to her/his child. I’d be surprised if more than 1 or 2 kids in the class would actually do it.

    Even with older students, I think teachers would learn a lot about their students if parents weren’t involved in homework. Again, I think many kids wouldn’t be able to manage what was expected and teachers’ expectations would have to become more reasonable.

    In any event, Harpaz is talking about a 9th grader. Like Harpaz, I don’t think schools should expect parents to download the homework and make sure their highschoolers do it. If students aren’t doing the homework, it should be up to the teacher to figure out why. Maybe it’s too boring; maybe it’s irrelevant; maybe there’s just way too much of it; maybe the kid has other things s/he’d rather do after a long day of school.

    By high school, I hope students can take care of themselves with their teachers. And it’s up to us parents to advocate for a change in the system.


  4. It is sooo scary for many parents to allow their children to accept any consequences- including not doing their homework. When parents complain to me that their child doesn’t seem to care about doing homework or getting good grades, I ask, “Are there any consequences- at home or at school?” They often seem appalled that I would suggest that a good parent “let” their child get in trouble. But, I believe that good parents do exactly that.


  5. I believe parents here are talking about determining when to step in. We all want our children to be self-sufficient. However, when homework become unduly burdensome, arbitrary or damaging to children’s curiosity, it is time to step in. Unless the child is older and can create their own productive dialogue with a teacher, parents have a role.
    Otherwise, we are just hanging them out to dry.


  6. I teach gifted kids, and the only homework I assign — with rare exception — is reading. I agree with so many parent comments above. That teachers might quit assigning homework if they saw what kids could — or couldn’t — accomplish on their own is an intriguing idea. (Admittedly, I teach upper elementary. I have the same philosophy for middle school, but I might assign homework in high school.)

    I read a couple of books about the academic value and the ethics of homework and decided to quit assigning it, except for reading. I discovered a couple of things. First, kids need a lot more guidance than I realized on the types of assignments that I’d been giving, such as completing an essay once the outline has been written. Also, this work takes much longer than I realized. Now that students do this work in class, I am available to provide that guidance, and I know the work is theirs.

    On the ethical side, I don’t think it is fair to assign homework and set up the potential for school to cause extremely negative dynamics in the family. Futhermore, lots of families and children have church, sports, music lessons, pets to walk, jobs, chores, and many other demands on their time.

    I agree with the mother who said there are teachers who do not work well with gifted children. It is heartbreaking. They seem to view gifted children as sassy instead of engaging. I love the energy and spontaneity of my students. They make me laugh with their quick wit, and class never lasts long enough. Children with asperger’s can especially be misunderstood. Some teachers equate speed and verbal facility with giftedness. And no teacher should put any child’s name on the board or keep kids in at recess. Kids need to be running around and getting fresh air.

    I agree with teaching kids to advocate for themselves, but when that doesn’t work, parents should be ready to intervene on their behalf.


  7. I agree with FedUpMom. Sometimes, the schools seriously screw up class placement, and doing the homework makes no sense. For instance, there is absolutely no reason to force a seventh-grader reading calculus textbooks during grade-level math to do a worksheet on long division (happened to me when I was younger). In the long run, it does more harm than it does good to force a child to do such. Time after school would be much better spent doing a mentorship or working on a project that it intellectually stimulating–unless, of course, the teacher does not mind a bunch of calculus equations and hypothesis testing between the assigned problems or an exegesis of number theory.


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