How to Support Your Child in Becoming Independent with Homework

One of the most frequent statement we hear in our offices is, “We need strategies to help our child be more independent with homework!”
This sentence is often an exclamation from parents who are at the wit’s end with nightly homework struggles, arguments and meltdowns. Whether their child is in first grade or a senior in high school, the homework pain is real, but it doesn’t have to be ongoing or chronic.
Often we want to blame schools and teaches for the unrelenting homework load. While there is truth in this perspective, it doesn’t help with the daily struggle at home.  As we therapists like to say, “The only behavior we can change is our own.” We can’t change the homework demands, but we can change how we react to homework at home.
Below are 5 ways to make homework less stressful and give you calmer evenings in your home.
  1. Keep homework in perspective. Homework is a big part of your child’s life. There is no ducking the issue and complaining about the unfairness of it all isn’t useful for you or your child. On the other hand, homework isn’t a mandatory life-giving force that must be attended to with uncompromising scrutiny with every “i” dotted and every decimal in its right place. Make space for homework in your child’s life, but don’t make it the most important thing your child does every day.
  2. Back off  on perfection. Let your child independently do their homework. In fact, do not check it, ever (unless asked, see below). Let their homework be messy, imperfect, with incorrect answers.  Why? Because this is the only way their teacher will know if they understand what they are being taught. How many power struggles in your home will be completely eliminated if you let your child be wholly responsible for their homework? How much more quickly will your child get help if the teachers can see for themselves where they are struggling?
  3. Trust your child to learn from their mistakes. Do you ever wonder why your child doesn’t learn from mistakes? Do you ever let them make a real mistake? A “real” mistake is one in which we have a natural negative consequence, and therefore feel awful, when we get the result. A real mistake is my child failing a math test (natural consequence) because he didn’t number his problems on his paper. He now writes nice big numbers on all math work, not because I told him so, but because he doesn’t want to fail a test again (and feel awful) for this easy-to-fix problem.  We parents fear our kids can’t handle failure. We panic because we think our kids will go up in a  puff of smoke if they have a negative feeling about themselves. The truth is, if we trust them and let them know we believe in them, they will be just fine when life hands them lemons. In terms of preparation for successful adulthood, your trust in, and support of, their coping skills and ability to learn from mistakes means more to them than getting an “A” in 6th grade math.
  4. Be available to support. Do not swoop in and rescue. True story: my son is in 6th grade and I have a very hazy sense of what his homework consists of. Yes, I ask him about it every day, I check the online homework board and when he says, “It’s all set.” I’m all set. I regularly offer to support him and it sounds like this, “Hey, did you want me to look over your essay?” “Do you need someone to quiz your for the social studies test?” “Let me know if you want help.”
Often, he’s not interested in my input, but a few times a week he’ll come to me and  ask for feedback and support. It goes very well when HE initiates the interaction and he is learning how to decide for himself, what he can do independently and where he needs some adult assistance. When we swoop in and essentially do our child’s homework with them or for them, they are learning an entirely different lesson. They can’t feel successful if we hover over them and are constantly trying to “save” them           from themselves. If they pass in a mediocre essay, we go back to #3 above. Trust the process.
  1. As the song says, “Let It Go.” If your child is stumped and overwhelmed by homework to the point of meltdowns, let it go. Write a note to the teacher (or if your child is old enough, have them write an email, too) and explain where things got wonky. And if your child feels compelled to struggle while insisting on completing homework they don’t understand, step in and stop that cycle ASAP. Nothing good comes from a full out meltdown, “I can’t do the work! But I must do the work!” Shut homework down and communicate with the teacher immediately. This goes back to concept #1 above and teaches your child that homework completion is not a measure of his/her worth as a person.
Ultimately, homework is a part of life and learning to cope with it is a much more important skill than the actual daily homework. Homework teaches 4 main “life lessons that lead to greater independence:
  • How to accept some inconveniences and challenges,
  • How to learn from failure,
  • How to make healthy decisions about when to persevere and when to ask for help, and
  • How to prioritize work and play
 By learning to keep an even keel through all these important lessons, homework doesn’t have to keep everyone up at night…