It was the sound of a sharpener tearing through a pencil that caught my attention. It was 6:30 p.m., and my daughter had been home for two hours. She’d been on the phone, watched some YouTube videos and given me a full account of the she-said/she-said drama of a fifth grade lunchtime showdown. And she was only now starting on her homework.
I shrugged and went back to stirring the pot of sauce for the macaroni and cheese I was making.
Her homework. Her problem.
It wasn’t always like this. Fourth grade was a series of battles that would make Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift blush. Every night, it seems, someone in our house wound up sobbing in a corner. Usually it was me. Why couldn’t she just DO her homework? She’s a smart kid; it can’t be that hard!
It was a crescendo that had been building since kindergarten (because news flash for those of you who remember naps and covering your hands in Elmer’s glue and not much else: Kindergarten homework is a thing now). She would come home after a long, exhausting day of cutting, pasting and learning to write her name, and I had no choice but to tell her she had just a little bit more to do.
At first it was fun. As a work-from-home mom, I’d sit in our dining room with my laptop and sneak peeks at her huddled over a worksheet just across the table and grin. With her tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth, she reminded me of her grandmother, who does the same thing when she’s hard at work.
But the shine was off the apple all too soon.
“But I’m tiiiiiired,” she’d tell me.
And she was. Numerous studies have shown that public schools assign too much homework to elementary school students — three times as much as recommend by both the National Education Association and the National PTA. By fourth grade, my 9-year-old was spending hours — literally, hours — filling out worksheets each night. There was more than one evening when we sent her to bed wailing that she wasn’t done and would get in trouble, to which we responded that we would be writing a letter to her teacher explaining the situation… and we did.
And then came fifth grade, and a revelation I owe in part to my friend — teacher and author Jessica Lahey. The author of 2015’s New York Times bestseller The Gift of Failure sat down with SheKnows last year to offer her advice on times parents need to let their kids fail in order to let them flourish. Homework, she noted, is an especially important piece of the puzzle. If you’re constantly hounding kids to get it done, you’re not allowing them to take ownership of their success. Ignore it, on the other hand, and you’re setting them up to deal with their failures and take pride in their successes.
Could it really be that easy?
Admittedly, my daughter’s schoolteachers have played a great role in the success of my backing down this year. The fifth grade teachers have instituted a merit system, whereby every child receives 100 merits at the beginning of each marking period. They can lose merits via misbehavior… or forgetting to do their homework. Considering those merits are necessary to be able to participate in a number of ultra-cool activities devised by the fifth grade teachers, that’s something the kids take seriously. And so far my daughter has gotten through two periods in the 96 to 100 merits club, a group of children who have retained all or nearly all of their merits for the marking period.
But I had to let go.
So she’s done it without me.
She’s done it with pride.
She’s done it in a much happier home.
Nighttime is a breeze in our house now. Her father and I get off work. One or both of us makes dinner. We eat together. We talk. We send her off to her shower.
There is fighting on occasion — we are raising a tween, after all — but not about homework. It’s done. Or it’s not. I never know. If she comes to me with a question, I offer limited guidance (not the answer, but suggestions on how to find it), and that’s it. If my suggestions don’t lead her to a conclusion, it may go unanswered. It may not. From her recent excitement over an invite to another merit club event, I would assume she’s getting it all turned in. And from the looks of her grades, she understands the curricula.
What’s more, she has taken responsibility for herself and what it is she needs to do.
Even better, I’ve noticed it flow over into other areas of life. A year ago, she would call me from the school, begging me to bring this, that or the other thing up to school because she’d forgotten it on the kitchen counter. Not anymore. She remembers the days she needs to take her instrument into school for band or lessons; I don’t. She puts together her lunch at night and grabs it from the fridge each morning. I don’t.
In a day and age where nearly half of American parents aren’t just checking but actually doing their kids’ homework, I feel like we’ve turned a corner because I finally learned to just let it go. —Jeanne Sager