The Homework Blues

The hour nears and I watch the clock as eagerly as Cinderella. Not midnight, but 4 p.m….when I take on my least favorite role of the day:  Homework Police.

It’s a transition I loathe. I know from that point on, the next 2-3 hours, depending on the day, will be like moving a boulder with a toothpick as I attempt to make sure the kids do their homework, focus on doing it well, and finish it before dinner goes on the table (or pj’s go on the body – again – depending on the day).

I should say here that I’m mainly referring to my sixth grader, who has a significantly higher workload than his third grade sister. Little sister, however, tends to finish her work quickly and spend the rest of the afternoon flitting around her brother like a butterfly, looking for any reason to pull her playmate away from his books.

Some days go well; everyone stays on task and things get wrapped up smoothly. On other days the frustration level runs high, prompting long speeches about unreasonable teachers (my son) and equally long lectures about how that’s life and we can choose to complain about it or just get it done (me). I explain to him that there will be teachers he loves and those he most certainly doesn’t, but that his job is to finish the work they give him. I recount the story of the college professor who docked my perfect attendance record for not coming to class the morning after my off-campus house burned down (no lie – she was evil). I reach for any life lesson I can…then realize at a certain point, I’m talking to myself.

Usually, about two hours in, when I’m at the end of my rope and debating a glass of wine, I throw the white flag. “Fine, don’t do it,” I’ll say. “Show up with a blank page and see how it goes.” He and I are now officially done with each other, mutually miffed.

But the truth is, even as I crack the homework whip and bluster on about attitude and consequences, I hate his homework, too.

Not all of it. Kids need some amount of accountability once they leave the building; it helps to teach independence, time management, and organizational skills. My problem is the sheer volume dished out these days. The precious hours between when the bus drops my son off and when I put dinner on the table are claimed daily, and part of every weekend is allocated as well. Rest assured that the last thing I want to do on a Sunday is get on my kid’s case for not cracking open his 90-pound backpack. I’d rather he run around outside, play with his sister, or get lost in a book the way he loves to do. And yet, there I am, constantly back-timing like the family cuckoo clock: “Four more hours until dinner! You’d better get it done now or else!” “Two more hours until bedtime! You’re in the red zone!” Blech.

It’s not just here, either. It’s everywhere. Recently, during a particularly trying afternoon, I posted on Facebook a request for a shrimp fork, so that I could jab it into my own eyeball. It truly did seem like the better option at the time. I heard back from plenty of exasperated parent friends who felt my pain.

A great article ran in the New York Times earlier this month, written by KJ Dell’Antonia, about the emotional toll homework takes on families. It resonated with me, and I shared it on my Facebook page. Again, friends responded. One comment, from a mom of teenagers in Massachusetts, literally bruised my heart:

“We stopped going to grandma’s for dinner on week nights years ago because it became too much for the kids with their homework. They were too stressed to really visit with family.”

Seriously? Is this what we’ve come to? And yet, I get it. Having moved to Wilton in 2012 to raise our kids closer to family, we too have our share of birthday celebrations and other occasions during the week. And I have to admit, there have been times – between hammering homework to make sure we make our dinner reservation and rushing everyone into bed when we get home later than normal – that I have thought about bowing out of a few of them. But I won’t do it. I can’t help but know that in the big picture, these moments are the ones that will count in the long run.

“I feel like I’m reasonable,” chimed in another Facebook friend, a fifth grade teacher. “But I do give about an hour of homework a night, and anytime there is a family event or something special or an illness going on, as long as the parent contacts me, I’m very understanding.”

This is more than fair, although less realistic in sixth grade, when that one teacher becomes five or six individuals. How many notes can a parent hand out? I do, however, tell my kids to explain to their teacher if a family event is behind their showing up with unfinished work; they need to learn to speak up honestly and negotiate solutions.

The bottom line is that these are the times we live in, so we have to find a way. But while I remember doing my homework off in the dining room while my mother made dinner in the kitchen, free of any responsibility in my direction, the group effort it takes today can be exhausting for the whole family. Throw in an after school activity or sport and you’ve got yourself a daily fire drill in the house.

I don’t have the answer. I can only hope that in the end it will all be worth it, and that my kids will grow up to be self disciplined, driven people. Or, they might graduate, throw their caps in the air, and decide to go be ski bums. In which case I might just join them.

Karen Sackowitz is a frequent contributor to GOOD Morning Wilton. She is also the principal of Karen Sackowitz Communications, LLC, a corporate, feature and personal history writing practice.