10/15/2010 08:23 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Dancing Parent: Navigating Homework Hell, Part 1

Let's begin by acknowledging that there are students who take satisfaction in doing their homework, and who, without any special prompting from mom or dad, come home each day and get to work. If their parents could bottle whatever it is that makes their kids do that, their profits would make Bill Gates' money look like sofa change.

Because for most parents, homework is far more likely to be a nightly tug-of-war, continually demanding the exhausting, alternating roles of cop, psychologist, warden, motivational speaker, spy, cheerleader, hall monitor or a Darth Vader taskmaster -- leaving many moms and dads wondering if sleeping at the office might be an altogether better plan.

While their children cannot know how much may depend on doing their homework, parents are all too aware of the impact from their kids' refusal or inability to get it done -- their lowered grades limiting their academic choices and disqualifying them from potential scholarships. So what's a parent to do? How do you come home from a full day's work and effectively deal with your child's homework-allergic behavior? How do you keep your child's nightly assignments from turning into the flash-points that define your family's home-life?

First, the bad news: there is no one-size-fits-all, quick-fix, miracle cure.

The good news? A new or revised approach to your child and his or her homework, informed by a deeper understanding of what your child-student may be experiencing in connection with doing his or her homework, can, and often does, work increasing wonders. So within the limits of what is admittedly a brief look at a very big subject, let's explore what we have often found to be the most common experiences for parents and children when it comes to homework.

In Parts 1 and 2 of this series, we will examine the challenges parents face, the ways in which they can help, and what is important for them to consider when their children struggle to work at home. In Part 3, we will look at it from your children's point of view, and what may be causing them to forget or avoid doing their work -- including the often unrecognized factors that may be profoundly affecting children and parents alike in ways that, if not identified and consciously addressed, can lead to fierce and wounding conflicts.

Part 1

For parents, homework can be a nightly tango into hell, turning family time into a frustrating fight. It likely begins when you notice your kids never seem to be doing much work. On the contrary, they spend their time on the phone or online, or watching TV. All your questions about their schoolwork are met by their assurances that everything is fine, or that they somehow did all their work at school.

And then, just as you suspected, come the calls from their teacher(s), informing you that your child has not done his assignments, or the letter or email listing your child's poor test scores and dismal grade reports. However the alarming news arrives, moms and dads often feel a sudden urge to dial 911, or lock away their child's computer and phone until homework hell freezes over.

Yet when they confront their kid about his or her missing homework, parents are often met with one of three basic responses from their child:

  • Denial: characterized by statements such as, "My teacher/school is mistaken," or, "They didn't tell me they wanted me to do that (fill in the blank)."

  • Falling apart: sometimes characterized by tears, but more often a pervasive sense of hopelessness and even withdrawal from the demands of the teacher ("I can't/don't know how to do what they want.")
  • Belligerence: often accompanied by anger, demonstrations of frustration, peppered with remarks such as, "Leave me alone; it's my problem," or, "You don't understand!"
  • Not exactly the evening you were hoping for?

    But before you really do dial 911, after locking up the computer and phone, take a moment to consider that however frustrated you might be feeling, the mode of your child's response may have just provided you with valuable clues as to why he or she is not doing homework. What's more, as you zero in on why your child's assignments have been late or are missing, you are now in a far better position to address the reasons why your child is falling behind, and to find ways to help.

    In the case of denial, dealing in specifics is the key. Emailing teachers to get a list of assignments is a good start. If that is not possible, or if your child's school is not responsive, checking your kid's class syllabus, calling other parents, or visiting the school to get a list of coming assignments may be a place to start. In short, it's going to take your proactive involvement. In some cases, that may require you to help your child get organized, keep track of his or her assignments, and create study plans. Some children need and want your elbow-to-elbow assistance. At least for a time.

    This may not be what a hardworking, worn-out parent might want to hear at the end of a long day, but it's an effort well worth making in the long run. But because a child's ability to respond to the demands of his or her world changes and evolves through different developmental stages and at different times, being at your child's elbow may also prove to be more of a trigger for conflict than a remedy.

    In those cases, locating a "homework club" at your school or in your area may be the answer. Any after-school program that can provide an environment in which your child is supported in doing his or her nightly work -- perhaps even organized by a group of concerned parents -- may also work, and this would allow you to function in more of a support role than that of a taskmaster.

    Perhaps there is a college or fellow high-school student who is able to spend a few hours a week with your child, to provide the impetus that encourages your child to meet his or her school requirements at home. Should the means be available, a tutor or mentor may help, too. In whatever way you can, identify what works best for your child at his or her present point, and work to give your child what he or she needs rather than getting frustrated or angry for what your child can't do.

    Homework difficulties are signals that, for whatever reason, your child can't yet manage to do what's being asked of him or her. You child needs your calm, regular presence to learn how to follow through on assignments, and to learn the importance of keeping up with schoolwork. In proactively working with your child, you can also avoid the often tempting trap of labeling him or her as "irresponsible," which will only drive you and your child apart while doing nothing to improve his or her work habits.

    Last but not least, try to always keep in mind that underneath your child's repeated tendency to fail to turn in work on time (if at all) may lurk deep-seated fears of being judged, or worse, being discovered to be incompetent or incapable. Most adults need not look any farther than the mirror to recognize this all-too-human experience, at any age.

    In our next article, "Homework Hell Part 2," we will look at your child's falling-apart and/or belligerent responses, as well as take a closer look at the unseen factors that may be informing your child's feelings of frustration, fear or sense of isolation when it comes to doing his or her homework. In the meantime, we invite you to visit our website, Until next time, keep dancing!