I have a confession to make.
Last year, I rescued my second grade son from imminent homework doom often. Often as in all the time. It sounds innocent enough, but I assure you, it wasn’t. My need to help him led to him needing my help, and it set up a dynamic that resulted in a pattern of helplessness, frustration, anxiety, yelling, and tears (for both of us).
I would suggest spelling sentence ideas. I would ask him to rewrite his work with neater handwriting. I would ask him to sit up straighter, pay attention, and hold his pencil differently. I would correct him when he struggled with a math concept. With common core math, especially, my “help” was a suicide mission for both of us. No wonder I poured a glass (or two) of wine at homework time!
Surely I’m not the only mom guilty of helping too much, right? Right?
But there’s more to my confession. Sometimes, my son would forget his math homework at school, and I would call one of my Mama friends from his class and ask her to take a picture of her son’s math worksheet and text it to me. Then, I would print it at home and my son would do the homework that he forgot to bring home from school.
This is the really bad part. Occasionally, by the time I got in touch with my Mama friend, her son had already completed the math worksheet. Per my request, she would still take a picture of it and text it to me. Then, I would use the photo editing features on my phone or computer to erase her child’s work and print a “fresh” copy for my son.
Ugh. I wish I could tell you that I feel better after spilling the beans about these repulsive homework rescue missions, but I don’t. I feel uncomfortable. I feel embarrassed. By not letting my son screw up – by not letting him struggle to solve (or not solve) problems on his own and by not letting him suffer the consequence of forgetting to bring his homework home – I failed him. I knew it was a bad idea every time I did it, but I couldn’t help myself from helping him.
This summer, I read Jessica Lahey’s book, “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed,” and it caused the biggest and most important aha moment I’ve ever had as a mom. I need to put my kids in the driver’s seat of their lives or else I’ll be tying their shoelaces, cleaning their dishes, making their lunches, and doing their homework for them until they eventually spend their adult lives living in my basement.
I’ve since made sweeping changes at home for both of my children. They make their beds, put away their laundry (folding is next), put their dishes in the sink (loading the dishwasher is next), and pack and unpack their backpacks. If they forget something at school or at home, the problem is theirs to solve and the lesson is theirs to learn. They’re contributing to our household, learning personal responsibility, and taking pride in their accomplishments. It’s not easy for me to walk past dirty socks on the floor or watch my son open (i.e. tear to shreds) a new box of cereal all by himself, but I’m getting better at it, and so are my kids. Our change has been gradual and hard, but we’re changing for the better.
I recently started listening to the podcast, “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.” She’s the author of the book, “The Happiness Project,” which I haven’t read yet but plan to at some point in the next eight to 10 years. The first episode I listened to was about choosing a theme, or an intention, for the year ahead. It’s a cool concept that can ground you when life inevitably spirals into chaos and you find yourself photoshopping another kid’s math homework. My theme came fast and easy. Organization. I want to be and I want my kids to be organized, which leads me back to homework and to the story of how I fell madly, deeply in love with my now third grade son’s teacher.
On back to school night, she said eight words that started my infatuation: “Do not help your child with their homework.” The she added 12 more words that made me fall head over heels: “If your child is struggling with the homework, tell him to stop.” And then 24 more (she had me at hello!): “If you do your child’s homework for him and then he struggles on the test, you will have wasted your child’s time and mine.”
Suddenly (and gratefully), all of my anxiety over helping too much or not enough and the insanity about common core math or Singapore math or whatever math were not. my. problem. I care about my children’s education deeply, and they both have learning challenges to overcome, which is an even better reason for me to step back and let them do their homework (or not) on their own. I’m always nearby to guide or redirect them, but giving them personal responsibility for their assignments, I’ve realized, is as important as the assignments themselves.
Free from the role of micromanager, I can focus my energy on helping my kids get their shit together – packing and unpacking their backpacks, giving me papers, permission slips, and reading logs that need to be signed, finding the right space to complete their homework, getting it done in a timely manner, and putting it all away properly.
Currently, my first grader’s homework includes a language or math worksheet and a few minutes of reading. My third grader’s homework is more time consuming but equally straightforward. Their assignments are simple (except when they’re not, because, you know, homework…), but I know what the future holds. By the time they reach middle school, they’re going to need the organizational, or executive functioning, skills to complete long term assignments and projects in various subjects with multiple steps and due dates.
Hang on while I catch my breath…
A few nights ago, my older son wanted to skip his nightly reading. It was late, he had a long and difficult hockey practice, and after finally finishing his math and spelling homework, all he wanted to do was zone out on Minecraft or Lego Dimensions before going to bed. I understood completely.
“Do I have to do my reading?” he asked me.
“It’s up to you,” I said. “I want you to think about what you want your reading log to look like when you bring it to school tomorrow morning. Whatever you decide is okay. It’s your call.”
He paused and then said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”
That would never have happened if I were still controlling his homework and every other task in his life, and I’m not sure who was prouder – him or me. I failed miserably when I rescued my son from his homework woes over and over again last year, but I’ve come clean and changed my ways, and it’s proof that the gift of failure isn’t just for kids. It’s for parents, too.