Ugh, homework!

This is a big one. I know that, especially in Hong Kong where Chinese homework is notoriously unrelenting, parents ache for guidance.

Recently, in an online summit, one of my parenting gurus, Susan Stiffelman, shared an audio talk on this very subject. I’d like to break it down with a Parent Effectiveness Training overlay.

Who Owns the Problem?

With homework, there are a great many things kids do and say! It’s critical to look at the particular behavior and wonder whose problem it is. The Behavior Window below shows that homework can fall in three of the four boxes, depending on the child’s behavior; since each box calls for dissimilar skills the classification is important.

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Before we dive in, though, how about a little self-care? How do you feel reading these scenarios? Blood pressure spiked yet? Homework can bring us to our knees — “Just, will you JUST, finish it ALREADY!?” It’s hard to like ourselves as we scream, judge, blame and compare when we’ve flipped our lid. And, once we’re calm, it’s difficult to let go of the guilt. It’s crazy making stuff that we want to be SO DONE with.

Now that we’ve acknowledged some of our emotions (yes, I Active Listened us all collectively!), we are in a better position to take in new knowledge. The first tidbit is a reminder to forgive ourselves:

I love this quote. It’s not about letting ourselves off the hook. I mean, you’re reading this blogpost, aren’t you? It’s about softening the edge of anger we hold toward ourselves and growing some clarity that we are also products of our upbringing. From that calmer space of self-acceptance, we are better able to grow as parents.

I love this quote. It’s not about letting ourselves off the hook. I mean, you’re reading this blogpost, aren’t you? It’s about softening the edge of anger we hold toward ourselves and growing some clarity that we are also products of our upbringing. From that calmer space of self-acceptance, we are better able to grow as parents.

Now, please have a look at Stiffelman’s analogy for children’s relationship to school/ homework and see if we don’t already feel a little more empathetic:

Imagine we [parents] had to do income tax returns all day at an off-site location. We were expected to wake up and be excited and cheerful about it too. When we returned home, we got a little snack but then had to do some tax homework so we could get really good at it. People important to us want to see that we are working hard on the tax assignment! At all times, we’re supposed to have enthusiasm and a good attitude; resisting these demands is not welcome.

According to Stiffelman, many kids report that they don’t relish school, finding it very taxing (couldn’t resist!). They go because they must but, biologically, she reminds us, they are wired to run around outside, learning skills like hunting and gathering from a community of parents and other caring adults. Schools, in contrast, were designed to create docile factory workers. It’s not surprising that 95% of children say what they like about school is being with friends and recess.

Hopefully now, with this widening of perspective, we’re better positioned to be supportive, rather than needy or demanding, around this issue. Power struggles are antithetical to the loving, caring relationships we aspire to.

So let’s walk through the Behavior Window.

Child Owns Problem

Say our kid whines “I don’t waaaaanna do my homework. Why do we get so much homework every dayyyyyyy??”

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What would happen if we came at them with Roadblocks:

2. Threatening - “If I have to listen to you complaining, I’m leaving this house. I have a hiking trail that is just calling out my name.”

3. Lecturing - ”It’s January. Homework should not be a surprise anymore. It’s a fact of life and if you just accept it, you’ll be a lot happier.”

6. Comparing/judging - “Why can’t you be like your brother and get on with it?”

8. Shaming/labeling - “You’re such a little whiner!”

Roadblocks do not help children calmly see the light and settle down at their desks. When we come at them with emotional heat, they may resist our implied or explicit threats to punish — we are all wired to be autonomous, according to Stiffelman. Or, if we’ve turned away in disgust, they may escalate into a meltdown or other negative attention-getting behaviors like destroying things or pinching the baby. Even if they comply, it may be driven by panic at the prospect of our withdrawal of love.

When we choose to be a helper, we try to open channels of acceptance and empathy in our hearts. We realize — This child is drowning! They don’t want to be having trouble with homework any more than we want them to!

Here is how the Helping Skills might look in action:

  • Attending — shutting our laptop, walking over and kneeling next to their chair seeking their gaze

  • Silence — remaining quiet to see if they will say more

  • Acknowledgments“I see,” nodding

  • Door-Openers“Would you like to share how you’re feeling? I’m willing to listen.”

  • Active Listening — reflecting the child’s body language, tone of voice and words: “You are REALLY weighed down by your homework. Day after day when you would like a break!”

Active Listening encourages the child to open up because we GET them and are not pushing them out of their emotional response. Sometimes, it’s enough just to be heard and they will sigh, “Well, I guess I have to do it so might as well start now.” Other times, a scenario like this might come up:

Child: “Yeah, and this week it’s Chrystal’s job to take and hang up the homework and she’s so mean to me.”

Parent: “You’re dreading the fact that Chrystal will be handling your work because of how she treats you.”

Child: “Right! We all hate her but Mrs. Kim LOVES her.”

Parent: “It’s frustrating that your teacher doesn’t seem to notice the negative ways Chrystal acts and instead FAVORS her.”

Child: “Yeah! Mrs. Kim has been so mean too lately. I asked her a question about something I saw on the website we were supposed to be researching on and she said, ‘I am sure you can figure it out yourself’ without even letting me finish the question.”

Parent: “That was hard for you when you were just trying to learn better.”

Child: (Sigh) “Well, then I asked the librarian later and she explained it to me. Anyway, how many days left to the break?”

Parent: “Seven school days.”

Child: “Cool. That means the most I can get is six more nights of homework.” Starts working.

It may be that Active Listening will unearth a bigger problem — here are some Stiffelman mentions:

  • It’s hard for our child to picture what they’re reading in their mind’s eye

  • Problems with tracking

  • Symptoms associated with Irlen Syndrome

  • Peer issues and their social standing (here are ideas on helping a bullied child)

  • Challenges with focusing and organization

  • A lack of understanding of what to do & overwhelm

Once we discover the real problem, we can find ways to address it. Sometimes, the child, calmer now, asks, “So what would you do?” or admits, “I have no idea what to do.” Here, we can help them use the six steps of problem-solving to identify their needs and find a solution. For instance: “It sounds like you are needing support to start your homework earlier and actually get it done to a standard you’re happy with. What do you think would make that easier?” Once they’re out of ideas, we can add our own, remembering that we are just facilitating and unconcerned about our own needs (otherwise it would qualify as a Conflict of Needs Method III problem-solve (see below)). So without pleading, nagging, whining or threatening, we might suggest:

  • Running around to release pent up energy

  • Doing homework in the kitchen if they crave company

  • Noise-canceling earphones

  • Creating a zen space with little visual distraction

  • A teenage “homework assistant” to take ourselves out of the equation

  • At the halfway mark, them making a quiz that we have to take on the subject or us having to do long division with them checking our work

  • At an agreed upon time, playing 10 minutes worth of Yahtzee, whether or not they’ve worked (so as to avoid it being a reward, the withholding of which is a punishment). Or make them do silly things like run around the backyard (or the podium level of the apartment complex) three times, bring home 4 leaves and put them on our head.

  • Asking the teacher for accommodations as necessary, e.g. adjustments to the assignment, a buddy to sit next to, a seat at the front of the room

  • Designing an inviting space — a nice fragrance, a beautiful painting or picture of them or a favorite teacher

  • Chunking big assignments — having them work for 7 or 11 minutes (weird increments) so they don’t feel they have to sit there “for 12 years” until they’re done. (Here’s an argument for “micro-progress.”) We can mix it up with play: Read 9 min, answer the questions, get two spoons, walk backwards and place them next to the textbook.

  • Follow Directions Game — Tell them we’re only gonna say the instructions once (to sharpen their listening skills) and give them a sequence like go into study, find two blue pieces of paper, place on dining room table, jump seven times, then lay down on the couch and start crying. Make harder or easier as they wish.

  • Resistance Monster Game — On a sheet of paper, write their name on one side, ours on the other for point keeping. While they work on math or reading, we try to distract them: “I wonder what I should make for dinner? Maybe I’ll cook some cardboard squares.” If they ignore you (smiling is allowed though), don’t look up, keep working and get the answer right, they get a point. If they look up, we get a point.

  • Doing the most difficult work first — To help with this, they can make grid. On the left side, list all tasks. At the top, fill in four columns with 1)How long I think it will take 2)How long it did take 3)How hard I think it will be (scale 1-10) and 4)How hard it was. This helps kids to get a better handle on how much time homework actually requires and to transition to taking more responsibility for their work.

  • Letting the child go to school without doing their homework — Stiffelman cautions us to do so only AFTER speaking with their teacher to come up with fair, motivational, helpful, appropriate ramifications. (Homework, she reminds us, is between the child and teacher; when we insinuate ourselves in the middle of it, it’s less likely that we can help because we’re then in the position of it being OUR homework.)

No Problem Area

We may think there’s nothing to do if our child is getting his work done and on time. (There’s even an argument to be made that not caring about grades so much might have an upside.)

Yet even when we are in the No Problem area, we can try to prevent problems, engineer our use of time and make changes in the environment that prolong our stay in this glorious box.

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Say our kid has homework but declares, “I’ll do it later” and we know she tends to ask us questions during the session. While there is still no problem, we might give a Preventive I-Message to let her know of our future needs - “At 5pm I’m going to be busy preparing dinner and then driving your brother to rehearsal and we won’t get back until right before bedtime.” And if we think she requires it, a Declarative I-Message — “I’m worried you’re going to feel stressed.” Hopefully, she decides to do her homework while her support system is around. If she doesn’t, and calls us multiple times, and this is predictable, repeated behavior then it makes sense to do a Method III Problem-Solve before the next incident (see below under Conflict of Needs).

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While strategizing for the Three Types of Time, we can reflect on our child’s temperament. Are they an introvert who craves Alone Time upon returning home? Does our energetic kid do much better if they get large muscle activity outside before sitting down again? If so, how can that happen whether it be through Alone Time, One to One Time or Activity Time? If they are mentally fatigued and disconnected, we might engineer One to One therapeutic play to unravel the day’s traumas (big and small). Later, unprompted, maybe we drop off a drink and offer them a shoulder rub, all with a smile of acknowledgment (a quick moment of 1-1 connection). Finally, let’s prioritize our own Alone Time so we parent from a place of abundance and responsiveness, not scarcity and reactivity. (Wouldn’t it be nice if homework never seemed like an emergency?)

We may also Modify the Environment by adding air conditioning to their bedroom 5 minutes ahead of time; snacks to offer at pick up; earplugs on a desk that has been topped with a funky new clock; or even a handkerchief dabbed with peppermint or lemon essential oil to assist in concentration.

We can also — ahem — send a Positive I-Message on our child’s behalf in an attempt to help improve their relationship with their teacher. It’s a little like matchmaking, I suppose. We can share, “Tammy loves it when you read, your voice is soothing.” Conversely, we can be sure to relay the positive points the teacher raises in the homework diary or at the parent-teacher conference.

Parent Owns Problem

I couldn’t think of a scenario where the child was happily doing their own thing (i.e. working on their assignments or not) and it kept us from meeting a need.

Sure, we might not like the WAY they are doing their homework, e.g. using OUR laptop, or spreading their papers over the sofa, or tossing our stuff from the dining room table onto the floor. In that case, we can confront that specific behavior (see this walkthrough on confrontation including my own unskilled moments at the end).

But the simple issue of homework being our problem? I don’t see it. Leave a message below if you do!

Both Own Problem: Conflict of Needs

In Hong Kong, I commonly hear of children wanting parents to be next to them while they work. And even back in the US I know of kids asking us to do their homework. These might very well be conflicts of needs where the child wants one thing and we want another.

In P.E.T., we endeavor to find a solution that elegantly meets everyone’s needs. That means, first of all, drawing back from the argument at hand which is really just fighting over solutions:

Parent: “Honey, you know I won’t do your homework.”

Child: “You have to help me! It’s due tomorrow! Everyone else’s parents are helping them. Don’t you know that!?”

Parent: “Well, I’m not everyone else’s parent and that’s not in my job description.”

Child: “I hate you! Get out of my room. Get out!!!”

Leading our child in the P.E.T. style of conflict resolution will be way more fruitful:

Method I is authoritarian and Method II is permissive; Method III is democratic and the P.ET. way.

Method I is authoritarian and Method II is permissive; Method III is democratic and the P.ET. way.

In Step 1, if we Active Listen the child and even use a gentle query (out loud or in our head)— What will that do for him? — we can get to the underlying need. That might go like this:

Parent: “Sounds like you’re really swamped with work and scared you might not get it all done!”

Child: “Yeah, so do something! Don’t just stand there, please HELP ME!”

Parent: “You want me to MOVE IT and to start lightening your load!” And because it’s an explicit request for help, we can give him the information he wants: “And I’m not comfortable doing your work. I can see you really need my support and understanding. I’m willing to help in other ways.”

Through empathically putting ourselves in the child’s shoes, we see his needs for compassion and bolstering. Acknowledging them aloud builds trust that we really accept him in his upset (as opposed to wishing he would drown more politely). Step 1 also means being explicit about our own needs which may include:

  • Integrity - we don’t want to be implicated in a plan where our child is claiming their work to be solely their own

  • Self-esteem - we want to help our child develop honesty and independence in what’s not meant to be a group or partner project

Step 2 involves eliciting his ideas (before offering ours): “Can you think of any ways we can meet your needs and mine?” What if he counters with, “Dad!!! I just need help. I don’t have time for this!!” Ideally, a Method III Problem-Solve takes place in the No Problem area before the next fiasco crops up. It doesn’t hurt, however, to try it in the thick of things when we don’t have other good options. If the child doesn’t have time for a proper brainstorm, perhaps they will just be grateful for the Active Listening and for any solutions that we feel comfortable with:

  • “I’m willing to go make you an energizing smoothie.”

  • “Today, I don’t mind emptying your gym bag and I’ll help get your uniform ready for tomorrow.”

  • “Let me know if you’re printing anything and I’ll get it.”

  • “If you’d like company, I’ll bring my laptop to work beside you.”

These are some that might just tide everyone over until the Problem-Solve can be resumed. Perhaps in the brainstorming step, we suggest an online organizer; Forest, an app that helps with single tasking; or a Sunday planning session for the week ahead.

After that, in Steps 3 and 4, we evaluate and choose which solutions seem best and then, in Step 5, decide who’s in charge of doing what and when. Finally, we set a check-in date so we can each reflect on how the solutions are helping or not (Step 6).

Both Own Problem: Values Collision

A bulk of the behavior falls into this category, where the child is simply meeting a need or even acting on their own value (this happens around puberty) and the behavior does not interfere with our needs. It does, though, collide with our values (beliefs or ideals that guide actions).

The child, for instance, might:

  • not do homework

  • wait until two hours after dinner to start and go to bed after 1am (they must rise at 6:30am to catch the bus)

  • rush through it (it hurts our eyes to look at it!)

  • hand it in late

  • lie that they have no homework

What are our P.E.T. strategies?

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Problem-Solve the Behavior

This skill is to be used surgically to try to change those behaviors that get in the way of our needs. Imagine an older kid with a value of Time is precious and not to be wasted on subjects that have no usefulness. If we respect her stance, she may very well agree to help us by keeping her views from her younger siblings (who have homework in all subjects and whose teachers email us when there are problems, expecting us to stay on top of the situation).

Consult

More often than not, there is no effect on us and we’re simply worried about their well-being, their ability to thrive. Dr. Thomas Gordon, the founder of P.E.T., describes an effective consultant as able to:

  1. Get and stay hired — In a calm moment, we give our opinion on how their behavior is negatively affecting their lives and then retreat to Active Listen a lot. A lot. (Did I mention a lot?)

  2. Share facts and figures — Once they’ve felt heard, we have their ear. We give it our best shot by sharing personal anecdotes, statistics and other information we find persuasive.

  3. Leave the decision with the child — If we want our kids to hear us out the next time we have something pressing to share, we wisely heed this last step.

The effective consultant offers her clients the benefit of her knowledge and expertise, yes, but does not hassle them week after week, does not shame them if they don’t buy her ideas, does not keep pushing her point of view when she detects resistance on the part of her client. The successful consultant offers her ideas, then leaves responsibility with the client for buying or rejecting them. If a consultant behaved as most parents do, her client would inform her that her services were no longer desired.
— Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, page 304

Confront & Listen

Here we can just do the first step of Consulting. Sometimes, listening and empathazing fully shifts our position and we find ourselves in a less “clashy” Values Difference (in the No Problem area) with our child. Even if not, we have laid the groundwork for Consulting later.

Model

Whether we intend to or not, we are always using this skill simply by living according to our values; the message is Do as I do. In fact, Dr. Gordon says modeling "is the best way, perhaps the only way, for parents to ‘teach’ children their values.” (P.E.T. page 302)

Uh oh. The fact that they’re always watching can be frightening to contemplate. All we can do is to try our best to align our choices with what’s important to us. If we want to encourage reading, say, let’s pick a novel over Instagram.

Modify Self

I think of this as our refuge when other skills have “failed” to produce the immediate transformation in our child we were pining for! I mean, perhaps our words of wisdom are percolating somewhere in the recesses of their brain but we have zero guarantee! Yikes.

In our shaky, vulnerable position we have this final option: changing ourselves. In the course, three questions prod us:

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So often, parents have a hard time pinpointing their value. But unless we shine the light of awareness onto what motivates us, we are acting without full volition. Right now you are peacefully reading and considering scenarios in the Behavior Window, accepting that homework, in and of itself, does not have a concrete and tangible effect on us. Why, then, is it even possible to get triggered when our kids don’t complete it on time or seem to “not care?”

Stiffelman lists possibilities for our strong negative reactions; I juxtapose them with possible values at work.

  • We believe how they do on homework reflects on us (Value: Parents’ worth derives from children’s achievements.)

  • We’re afraid of the teacher’s reaction if he perceives we’re slacking off or uninvolved (Value: External negative evaluation must be avoided.)

  • We had parents who didn’t care or didn’t help and we committed to not being that type of parent but have gone overboard (Value: Parents are responsible for their children’s success; academic success is the most important kind.)

  • We had parents who were over-involved and that’s the pattern we’ve taken on (Value: ditto)

  • We have nagging doubts that our child is not ok - maybe he’s young and we pushed him into this grade (Value: Admitting mistakes is dangerous.)

  • We’re worried she is not in the right school and we feel a compelling need for her to be successful and get her work done well to prove ourselves right (Value: ditto)

  • We take it personally when they “reject” or “don’t appreciate” us when we’re just trying to help (Value: Our self-worth comes from others’ approval.)

  • We find it so disturbing that what could take 20 min is taking 2-3 hours!!! We resent how homework eats into family time and down time — it’s an intrusive element and the child becomes the agent by which we accomplish getting rid of it. We are so infuriated by the drawn out drama that we play a major, if not starring, role (Stiffelman terms this “Mom TV”). (Value: We are victims of others’ actions.)

  • We are concerned about a learning problem especially if we ourselves have one and feel guilty for passing it on. Perhaps we are in denial and don’t want to admit they have a problem. (Value: It’s safer to look away from the truth.)

  • We are ambivalent about homework and the child picks up on it (Value: Honest self-disclosure is risky.)

Consciously claiming values that may have been operating without our knowing is key to understanding where our anger, anxiety or guilt stems from. Then we can be more discerning about questions 2 and 3. Here’s my own experience:

A few years ago, I was really locked into battle mode over Claudia’s homework. I wanted her to finish it before playing; she wanted the opposite. One day, I’d had enough pain and dove deep:

1. What was my value, the belief driving my inflexibility? Though I had been insisting it was lofty “self-discipline,” it was obvious that Claudia was deliberate too, completing work on her own schedule. Digging finally unearthed the truth: Fun must be earned.

2. Where did this value come from? All my life up to that point, I had been in constant motion proving myself through grades, achievements, serving and pleasing (my mother, my husband, my clients, my children, my houseguests). Only once in a while, when I had attained the perfection I sought (or come darn close), did I give myself permission to slow down.

3. Did I want to pass this value on to Claudia? No, was the resounding answer that came from my wise self. This sprightly ten year old didn’t deserve that yoke around her neck. In fact, I started slowly to lift it off me as well.

Meditating on these three questions was a structured way of getting space between my unexamined thoughts and my automatic behavior of pushing Claudia to “Hurry up and finish!” before she started doodling or splaying like a starfish on the couch. Over time, I Modified Self.

I was one of the parents Dr. Gordon mentions for whom “P.E.T. itself may not be enough to bring about significant change” (page 320), who go on to seek therapy or continued group support or other avenues of self-help. In particular, I went on a reading spree, trained in EFT tapping and started meditating. The result of decisions like these is that “parents acquire the insight and bring about the changes in attitudes that then permit them to use P.E.T. methods effectively.” (page 321)

I have been approached about mindfulness and meditation by many parents. How would these Modify Self skills apply to the matter of homework? Well, they give us an opening between our child’s behavior and our knee-jerk reactions so we can more easily pause and select our response. It’s a relief to notice THAT we’re thinking and WHAT we’re thinking and even to entertain the possibility that we may be wrong. They help us to observe with calm curiosity and to allow the behavior to be, if only for the present moment, without our amygdala spurring us to actions we will regret.

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So if our child is fidgety at the homework table, we acknowledge that.

If he wants to be outside, we accept that that is his longing.

When she says she doesn’t want to do it right now, we hear her actual words (she has not said she wouldn’t ever do it).

If he asks, “What does this mean?” the actual question registers instead of our panicked thought, This child should not be asking me this question!

Mind you: Acceptance is not resignation. It just affords us a peaceful starting point from which to think — Does this behavior cause me to have a problem? Or is my child showing that he is struggling with unmet needs? Do I want to share some values in a skilled way so my child really hears what I am saying?

So that’s my plug for one my favorite ways of Modifying Self.

Some readers are in the thick of homework, with little kids and teacher’s notes; other parents of teens are at the tail end of their involvement with it. No matter how many more times we will face the issue, I hope this P.E.T. walk-through has illuminated it some.

The title of this post includes a frustrated “Ugh” but wouldn’t it be incredible if we could change it to an anticipatory “Aah?”

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I hope we may all look forward to the next chance to grow — our self-awareness, our self-compassion and our self-control — in service to ourselves and our children. That opportunity may just be today after school.

Best, best, best of luck to you, dear reader!

xo Catherine



Credits: Girl doing homework (https://phys.org/news/2017-10-homework-students-personality.html): Don’t Believe Everything You Think (https://twitter.com/m3ditation/status/955416489217216513)