When to say when

After much consideration, I’ve decided homework really sucks. I know it serves a purpose (in theory); kids can practice what they are learning in class and teachers can use it to evaluate how much the kids are assimilating before it comes to test time. But when kids are getting copious amounts of homework in elementary school, I feel like we should all just stop a minute and ask whom is this serving?

I’ve been working on this blog post for some time now, spurred by my recent experiences with my sons and their homework and the battles over it that have become my own personal hell. I also read several interesting articles about homework studies that show homework probably isn’t even helping our children, like this article and this one. Then, I read this blog post about the pressure we put on our kids in sports at a young age and everything began clicking for me; sports aren’t the only place that the pressure is on.

First, the ideas that kids are getting so much homework because the teacher doesn’t want to look bad, or because parents are expecting it, or because kids have to do well on their tests or else heads are going to roll and budgets are going to be slashed, truly blows my mind. I mean, I’m sure if there was no homework, ever, I’d be one of those parents that was slightly concerned. Not because I would be afraid that my kids weren’t learning in school, but because I would feel behind the 8 ball not having any clue what they were learning about. We all know how asking kids about what they are learning goes. But, I’m also pretty sure that if I were to go to “Meet the Teacher” night and hear from one of my sons’ teachers that he/she didn’t really believe in homework and that he/she would only be sending home essential assignments to help them prepare for tests, expand on their knowledge, and to evaluate their progress, my reaction would be “hip-hip-hooray!”

As for the whole business, and I do mean business, that our kids are somehow responsible for testing well enough both so that teachers can keep their jobs and so that the schools can get better funding…just, stop. It’s not fair to the teachers, it’s not fair to the kids, administrators aren’t happy, parents are frustrated…it is a mess. The idea of the Common Core might have merit, but so far I haven’t seen any indication of it.

I get that our educational system is behind other countries. What I don’t get is how having kids spend hours upon hours doing homework or learning math in some convoluted way is going to help us get ahead as a country or help our kids become more prepared for college and beyond. Frankly, I get a little freaked out when my kids start talking about what college they want to go to…um, you’re nine. Go kick a ball or draw a picture or lay in the yard and look up at the clouds and think about whatever. I’m not ready to talk about college and you shouldn’t be either.

My kids are in elementary school. At that age, I remember doing spelling lists and math drills and the occasional book report or diorama. I remember doing a lot of long-term projects in class over a period of time. Now it seems that the kids have all that and more. To keep up with our super-sized world, homework has become super sized too.

Lord knows, I wasn’t a big homework fan growing up. Who is? OK, I guess some people are and actually, I admire them. Or, more accurately, I admire their parents for knowing how to properly inspire them to do their best on every assignment, manage their time correctly, and all-in-all get it done. I am failing on all of these fronts. And I feel like a bit of a hypocrite riding my kids about their homework knowing full well that when I was in school I definitely was a daydreamer and a bit of a procrastinator. I forgot my homework and received “not working up to potential” and “capable of better work” marks on my report card. When I look back, I wish I had applied myself more. But usually when I look back, it is to high school when whatever social drama I was wrapped up in seemed more important than whatever homework I should have been doing or test I should have been studying for. Not to fourth grade.

It’s not that my boys aren’t smart, either. In fact, they are too smart sometimes. Unfortunately, up until now, they had become accustomed to coasting by in school and having everything come easy to them. Last year, there was a special program that they were invited to attend called “Word Masters”. They were jazzed to be asked to be a part of it even though it meant going to school early on Thursdays to take part. That’s right. My kids wanted to go to school early to do more work. I was very proud.

But then the work set in. And they decided that maybe they didn’t want to go to school early AND study at night… and I can’t say that I blamed them. So I gave them a speech about how I wish that I had applied myself more and that they have the ability to pretty much do anything they want to do if they try. Even a little bit. And that sometimes, they will have to try a lot. And study and fail and study some more. But that it will be so worth it in the end because they will have the opportunity to do whatever it is that their hearts desire. I told them that they shouldn’t take the easy way out like their mom did and how I wish I had tried a little bit harder because then I would have had more options. They listened (rare) and seemed intrigued that their mom was admitting she had done something less than optimally. And we studied together for their next test and they both did better. They were satisfied and so was I. However, as soon as I backed off and left them to their own devices, it was clear they would rather spend extra time running around outside than studying analogies. And at eight-years old…I fully supported that.

Yes, it is great to have these opportunities and yes, I want them to embrace the chances they are given and put forth their best effort. Always. But I don’t want to have to be on top of my elementary schooler to study for hours at a time. My son wanted to try out for the Math Olympiad. It was totally his idea and I thought, hell yeah, go for it! Am I going to force him to stay home and study math to make the team at nine years old? No.

This year, as I both suspected and somewhat dreaded, their general workloads have increased. I’m glad they are challenged because they do get bored otherwise. However, two months in, I have decided that it would be much better if they were mostly challenged in the classroom. Having nightly homework battles is doing nothing for their learning and nothing for us as a family other than creating trouble. I want to support what the teachers are doing in the classroom, but when my kids are sitting down completely overwhelmed with an assignment that has multiple parts and they aren’t even sure where to begin, we have already lost.

I can vividly remember battles with my own mother, who was a teacher, and who tried to help me with math and science. But I didn’t want to hear from her and I became frustrated when she would try to show me something that wasn’t exactly the way the teacher said to do it (sorry, mom!!) I try to take deep breaths when my kids are saying the same things to me now. However, the main difference is that I was struggling with Algebra and Chemistry in middle school and my kids are in fourth grade trying to complete a book journal or do nightly math homework. Or both. In the wise words of my 9 year-old, “Writing three paragraphs AND having math homework is like torture for little kids”.

And so, I check my motives. Why am I so up in arms over how they complete an assignment? I keep threatening to let them “learn the hard way” and yet I don’t. The other night I told my son, to my own horror, “I don’t care if you fail!” An hour later, I told him that it wasn’t true. I DO care. Very deeply. But why am I so worried about them failing at age nine? Why is there so much pressure for these kids to perform? Why am I so worried about my very smart little boys when I know that regardless of the work they do or do half-assed that they are still probably among the top in their class?

Part of it is what the author of The Race to Nowhere in Youth Sports was getting at. We are afraid. Afraid that if we don’t push our kids now that they will be left behind. This fear is what is driving teachers to assign homework in kindergarten beyond cutting and coloring. This fear is what keeps parents from protesting. This fear is what compels parents to complete that science or art project; to type up that paper and just correct a couple of sentences here and there. I refuse to do that, and yet, I hover over the assignments that they are doing and question whether they are doing their very best work. They are nine! Who cares if the title on the god-forsaken poster isn’t spaced out properly and they have to cram the letters together to get it on the page? Seriously, mom, get a grip.

I don’t think that education is a race to nowhere. But I question whether we aren’t introducing a level of pressure to our young children that isn’t necessary. Right now their teachers should be instilling fundamental skills, yes, but most importantly a love of learning. Hours of homework a night aren’t going to do that. Over-the-top projects aren’t going to do that either. What gets it done is the spark of interest and curiosity that is started in the classroom. It is when my son starts talking all about the Native American tribes he learned about that day and starts giving me a pop quiz at dinner; when he says that he was supposed to fill out a sheet about the Iroquois, but he wrote a “book” instead. I want my children to be so excited about a subject that they can’t wait to show off what they’ve learned and seek to learn more. I don’t want them to hate learning because they associate it with hours of homework and fighting with their mom. This is the teacher’s job and it is no easy feat. Especially when the weight of test scores are laid on their shoulders. Especially when they have children who don’t speak English as their first language or children who don’t get enough to eat or children whose parents both work extra hours to make ends meet and cannot spend time to make sure their child’s critical thinking skills are up to par in the third grade or to learn a new way of doing math so that their child can answer test questions correctly.

As a society, we want our kids to excel. We think that by starting early, we will achieve that. But I fear, just as with sports, all our children will end up with is burnout. And as a single mom, with limited time to spend with her kids, I am especially wary of the whole thing. I want to “prove” that my kids are just as smart and just as capable and that I am just as able to provide proper educational support as a child from a two-parent household. But if I had my druthers, I’d rather spend that limited time making sure they are feeling loved and secure at home, that they are valued for their individual skills and assets, than spending it lording over homework assignments and projects that truly will have little bearing on the outstanding men I am certain they will become. If they start to hate homework because it is too much and too hard, they will begin to think that using their brains and learning is also too hard. They will start to look for the easy way out. They will perhaps use their ingenuity to get into trouble rather than to solve problems.

Instead, at such tender ages, we should be looking to create well-rounded children; children who are inspired to explore all this world has to offer: reading, writing, math, science, social studies, art, music, health, sports. These are the children who will become the leaders of tomorrow. Those who develop a love of learning. Those whose curiosity is rewarded. Those who can spend their time in school learning the fundamentals and can spend their time out of school learning how to be good family members and good citizens and pursuing their passions. Those are the children I want to raise. I want them to excel, but I want to help them put their energy into the right places. And at this age, the time they spend in school is quite enough. When school’s out, they should have a choice as to how they spend their time. And if they want to spend an hour building with Legos or creating a Halloween mural or jumping in the leaves outside, I support that one hundred percent.

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Those are mighty big backpacks for such little boys!

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5 parenting challenges I considered writing about this week

Everyone loves lists and it is a blogger’s favorite trick, so here we go:

Top 5 parenting challenges that I thought about writing for this week’s post:

1. Popular music and where to draw the line

I love music. I remember being maybe 9 or 10 and holding my tape recorder up to the radio so that I could record my favorite songs from the Top 40. I loved to listen and sing along: Duran Duran’s Hungry Like the Wolf, Billy Idol’s White Wedding, Madonna’s Like a Virgin…I didn’t understand what I was really singing about. Frankly, it was adults’ reactions to Madonna that tipped me off that something was up. My first record was Huey Lewis & the News, “Sports” which I won off a boardwalk game down the shore. I am sure my mother was thrilled as I went around singing “I want a new drug, one that won’t make me sick…” But now the shoe is on the other foot. It is disconcerting to hear my sons’ sing Ke$ha’s, Tick Tock “…brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack…” not only because of the content, but also because there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that I would ever choose to listen to Ke$ha, so I have no idea where they get that. Hypocritically, I was more than happy to let them listen to Tom Petty’s Listen to Her Heart “You think you’re going to take her away, with your money and your cocaine”. I tried to sing loudly over the word “cocaine” and convince them that it was “croquet”. Of course, this didn’t work and they repeated it to their younger cousins. Whoops. And now with songs that have explicit lyrics available via Spotify and Pandora, I can’t be sure that they aren’t getting exposed to things that they shouldn’t. I wouldn’t ever want to make music “bad”, but I don’t really want to hear my 8-year olds singing about drugs or sex. It’s a pickle.

2. Dating as a single mom

This is a topic that fascinates people. I have been asked very many times: How do you meet people? What is it like? How do you handle things with the kids? Answer: I haven’t the foggiest idea. I once remarked to someone that I finally understood why traditionally people have felt it is so important to get married before having children: because meeting someone and dating while you have kids is a bit of a nightmare. To be fair, I wouldn’t say that I was ever very good at “dating” before I had kids either. I’m definitely what they call a serial monogamist. Dating is a foreign concept for me. And since I am so protective of my sons, I will not let just any old someone into our lives. Only the most amazing, trustworthy, kindest soul who won’t let us down and will love us all completely will do. And they have to make us laugh. And be able to stick by us through the busy ups and downs of our lives, all while putting up with our idiosyncrasies. So…I think I would make a good nun.

3. The woman that got fined for not having grains in her kid’s lunch 

This isn’t exactly a parenting challenge, but it kind of is, right? I mean, we all struggle with lunch. We do what we can to make sure our kiddoes get good nutrition and eat what we want them to eat. But this lady sent her child off to school with a healthy lunch and she got fined AND the school supplemented her kid’s lunch with Ritz Crackers, as if that was what made it all OK. Now it is nutritious because we added the crackers, see? Essentially, there is a government “guideline” for schools which states that a healthy lunch must have a milk, a meat, a grain, and two fruits and vegetables. And parents get fined if they don’t follow it. This was in Canada, but I can very quickly see this happening in the U.S. (Large soda, anyone?) I understand that the government wants to protect us from ourselves and keep us healthy. I understand that there is a problem with obesity and malnutrition. But I don’t think Ritz Crackers are the answer. In fact, I am trying to figure out a way to eliminate grains and processed foods from our diet because I suspect we are all being slowly poisoned by the food we eat. The government needs to stay out of it. By the way, I used to love Ritz Crackers and they are pretty much C’s favorite food, so, no disrespect to Ritz, but I wouldn’t suggest they are the key to a nutritious, balanced meal either.

4. Real and perceived judgments about single moms

C wanted to wear a dirty shirt to school the other day. For obvious reasons, I wanted him to change. He has been incredibly stubborn and difficult and I knew it was going to be a battle, but I was ready to put my foot down. However, I was surprised to hear the reason why as it came out of my mouth, “You have a mother who has a job and puts a roof over your head and provides for you. You are not going to go to school in dirty clothes looking like a street urchin whose parents don’t care”. Street urchin? Really? I’m worried that people will think I am not a good mom because he is wearing a dirty shirt? Or that it will show single moms don’t care about their kids? Where is this all coming from?  There seems to be an awful lot of judgment out there regarding parenting as a whole. Everyone is very concerned about what everyone else is doing and why and offering their opinions (judgments) on why it is good, bad, or whatever. I have my opinions, but I generally try to keep them along the lines of “this worked for me, so I like it” or “I don’t think that would work for me, so I reject it”. I have cared about other people’s opinions of me for far too long. And just when I thought I had shed that skin for good, I became a mom. A single mom, to boot.  Suddenly, everywhere I looked it seemed someone else was passing judgment about someone’s parenting idea or single moms on welfare being a drain on society. Now I seem to be taking all these judgments and internalizing them. As if I have to be an EXTRA good mom, so that people don’t dismiss my children because they are being raised by a single mom. Is this a single mom’s curse? Or just my own neuroses?

5. Our normal life

My oldest and dearest friend and I were probably 10 or 11 when we were driving to Great Adventure with her parents. It was a long drive so we amused ourselves by waving to people and trying to get them to wave back. We put signs in the window that said, “Why be normal? We’re not!” We thought this was hysterical. And so true–who wants to be normal anyway? Boring. Other people clearly approved of our message because we got quite a few honks and thumbs up. But a few nights ago, I had to hear my son say, “I just want to be normal” because he wants our family to “be like everyone else’s”. Meaning, with a dad; something that I just haven’t been able to manage to give him and maybe never will. I tried to explain that there is no such thing as “normal” and that everyone is different and unique and sameness is boring. However, I realize that for an 8-year old boy fitting in and being the same as everyone else is probably the most important thing in the world. No matter what I do or how I try to make up for it, I will never be a dad and we will never be “normal”. I just pray that I figure out a way to show the boys that our “normal” is just as good as anyone else’s.

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