Monday, April 8, 2013

How to Get Boys to Do Homework, Part 1

Photo by mrsdkrebs via Flickr
My boys are back to school today after a long and
wonderful Spring Break.

They -- like many other kids -- were less than enthusiastic about going back. And clearly counting the days 'til the tyranny of school is over for another year. (47, according to my 10-year-old).

How's school going for your boys? Are they loving it? Hating it? How's the homework battle going?

If getting your son to do homework is a struggle, rest assured: You're not alone. I have heard "he won't do his homework" tales than I care to count.

Why Boys Hate Homework

Often, the boy in question is not dumb. Quite the contrary: He's usually pretty intelligent. So intelligent, in fact, that he sees through the homework games. He knows that the assigned work is just busy work, a way to make teachers and parents and administrators feel like they're feeding his mind after school.

Very often, the boy is right. Take a look at your son's homework. Is it really helping him learn and understand a new concept? Helping him expand his mind? Enlarging his understanding of the world? Or is it merely asking him to repeat skills over and over? To fill in the blanks?

Most of the homework I see still falls into the mindless repetition category. And if that's the case for your son's homework, is it any wonder he's resisting it? Why would he want to spend precious minutes of his life doing something he already knows how to do, over and over again?

Boys also hate homework because it almost always requires them to sit and be still -- after hours of sitting inside, being still. Most boys would rather be out in the world  in some way, doing something with some meaning. Homework, instead, asks them to devote their time and attention to a very tiny little thing, in a very tiny confined space, towards no visible higher purpose.

Boys hate homework because homework, as far as they can tell, has no point. Boys tend to be very goal-oriented. But like most human beings, they like to work toward goals that have personal meaning. And while there may, perhaps, be a larger point to the homework -- your son's teacher, for instance, may believe that he must master square footage calculations in order to live successfully in the world -- you son doesn't see or value that connection. What he sees, instead, is that the homework is an obstacle between him and his goals.

So how you do get your son to do his homework?

Address Underlying Fears

First, take a step back. Why do you want him to do his homework?

That question might seem ridiculous to you. You might be screeching at me through the computer screen right now. But humor me.

Do you want him to do his homework because you're afraid that it will reflect poorly on you or your parenting if he doesn't? Because you believe that he must do whatever he's instructed to do? Because he'll get bad grades if he doesn't do his homework? Because he won't get into a good school if he doesn't complete his work?

Let me tell you something: Most of those worries and concerns -- most of parents' worries and concerns regarding their kids' homework -- reflect parental fears. Most of them have absolutely nothing to do with your sons' learning. To effectively support your sons' learning, you need to honestly and realistically admit and attack your fears, before turning toward your son.

Your kids' grades are not a direct reflection of your parenting abilities. Your kids' grades, at best, are an incomplete picture of their effort and ability in school. Academic grades are affected by a variety of factors, including student effort, effective teaching, parental support and the kids' overall environment.

One of my boys must read a certain number of minutes every month; part of his reading grade is directly aligned with the number of minutes he reads. If he reads X minutes, he earns an A. But if only reads Y minutes, he gets a B. My son knows the grading scale. He also knows how to read. As far as I'm concerned, his choices are ultimately what dictates that portion of his grade. Will I be a "better" parent if I push him -- force him -- to read X minutes so he earns an A? I don't think so. Will reading X minutes under duress make him a better reader? I don't think so; I think it's more likely that he'll learn to hate reading. So I let him control his own reading minutes.

Do you believe your son should do his homework simply because it's been assigned? Because we all have to do things we don't want to do? Think about this:  If your boss assigns you a task that you completed last week, would you say something? Or would you simply repeat the work?

If your son truly understands the material, do you really think he needs to do every single exercise? Why?

If you're worried about bad grades, again, ask yourself why. Do you think your son's bad grades will reflect negatively on you? On him? Do you think they'll keep him out of school, or make it difficult for him to achieve success in the world? Let me ask you this: When was the last time someone asked to see your report card? Do you believe that your success is truly linked to the grades you earned in grade school, high school or even college?

I write this as a former 4.0 valedictorian. Clearly, at one point in my life, I valued good grades highly. But you know what I've since learned? Good grades don't necessarily reflect learning. They don't reflect compassion or potential. And while it's true that my good grades helped me get scholarships, no one has asked to see my transcript in years. The truth is, no one cares what kind of grades I earned.

Instead, they care about how I make them feel. They care about my ability to work with others, my ability to communicate, and my ability to put ideas together. They care about my honesty and dedication.

Those qualities are what will bring your sons success as well. And your son can have those qualities in spades, even if his report card is littered with Ds.

So before beginning any homework intervention, separate your fears and concerns from reality. If your son is happy and joyful, learning and growing and engaged in the world, are the grades on his report card really so serious? Do your son's grades  reflect a problem with your son's learning, or something else?

Tomorrow: Concrete steps you can take to deal with homework 


  1. This is such a great post. And it resonates too with us as homeschoolers. Every so often I have to ask similar questions: Why are we doing this? Whom (or what) is it serving? If we don't do it "my way"--will the world stop?

    1. Thanks, Pamela. You're right -- homeschooling families and school families often deal with the same issues re getting their kids to do something. And clearly, my homeschooling experiences have infused my thinking on this issue. What I learned, through homeschooling, is that grades are not the be all and end all, and aren't even always representative of learning. For someone like me -- who grew up very focused on grades and academic achievement -- that was an important realization.

    2. Are you teaching your children to ignore/disrepect authority figures?

    3. That is totally not what the article states. If you read it completely, you would of understood that we need to look at our priorities when it comes to homework. Nowhere in the article did it state to ignore/disrespect authority figures. I read it twice, just to ensure I didnt miss anything. I didnt.

    4. Thank you both, Anonymous. (Anonymouses?) ;)

      I'll post more on this topic later today.