11/03/2011 12:00 pm ET | Updated Jan 03, 2012

How Much Homework Is Too Much?

It's Halloween week, and I'm bleary-eyed -- not from getting ready for the holiday, but from helping my youngest son practice his Spanish presentation.

It wasn't a huge deal of an assignment. Just two minutes about someone deceased -- he chose President Kennedy -- for a Day of the Dead celebration in his Spanish II class. However, he also had homework for English, algebra, physics and Western Civilization -- on a weekend.

He's a freshman in high school, and it's been a rough transition for him. His four older brothers and sisters all went to public schools, and they were whipped into shape early by homework drills: endless math sheets, word searches, posters. I gave up ever trying to clean off the dining room table, because somebody was always doing a project -- or having a breakdown because a project wasn't done. Sometimes it was me having the breakdown.

These four older children all went to great colleges. Three have now graduated and actually have jobs, amazingly; the fourth is in her senior year and working on her college thesis. Good for them, right? And great for us, too, of course.

Did all of that homework get them there?

I have no idea. I never would have questioned the idea of homework -- it was drilled into my head, too, that you should always have papers to keep you busy, even if it meant staying up until midnight to get it done -- except that my youngest son went to a Montessori School. The Montessori philosophy was, hey, if you need to review something, here's some homework that can help you. Otherwise, go outside and play, cook dinner with your family, or draw a picture.

"He wouldn't be having so much trouble with high school if he'd gone to a 'real' middle school," my cousin grumbles.

Maybe. But the thing is, our youngest son isn't really having trouble with high school. He loves his teachers, comes home repeating incredible stories about Chinese philosophers from his Western Civ class or trying out new physics theories. He loves to practice Spanish. He is making friends and shaving minutes off his time at every cross country meet. He's a successful high school student in every way -- except for that struggle over homework.

The thing Montessori taught him -- and me, too -- is that there are lots of important things to learn in this world. Maria Montessori, in fact, had a theory that kids in early adolescence shouldn't even go to a traditional school, but to a farm school, where they could exercise their bodies as well as their minds and become truly engaged in the world. They should do community service and -- gasp -- hold down a small job, all as a way of stimulating intellectual curiosity.

Instead of doing homework, our son would rather be practicing flips on the trampoline, hiking with his dad and me, working in his father's wood shop, fiddling around on the bass guitar, and, of course, playing video games online.

"Computer games are ruining our kids," a friend suggests.

Really? Why? Because he's playing games online with a team of kids from Canada, Spain, Germany, and the U.S.? Because they Skype and learn how to work on team strategies together, learning about how each of them lives along the way? Is that why those games are bad?

"He's always fooling around," my mother argues.

I suppose that's what it looks like from the outside. Having been through Montessori, though, makes me question whether doing seven hours of homework on a weekend is necessarily more valuable than doing everything else that commands our son's attention.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm highly impressed by my son's high school instructors and curriculum. And, given what research show about brain development -- that our brains are the most plastic they'll ever be until age 16 or so, which means that whatever those brain synapses are doing during middle and early high school years truly impacts what kind of thinker your child will become as an adult -- I'm delighted that our son is stretching himself in many different directions.

It's just the homework that gets me. Why isn't it enough to focus on academics all day, and then give it a rest?

In the incredible documentary "Race to Nowhere," we see a series of students who have been crushed by homework, while parents and academics wonder how they can keep students engaged and inspired. Duh. If homework kills the creative buzz, why are we still letting it bleed into evenings, so that there's never time for a game of cards, never mind chess? Why do our weekends have to be spent figuring out physics vectors instead of hiking in the White Mountains?

The counter argument, I know, is that homework teaches accountability, reviews topics covered in class, and prepares your child for college. In college, though, students are older and more motivated to organize their time. (Plus, let's not kid ourselves, there's more free time in college than in high school.)

Meanwhile, what message are we sending by piling on the homework in high school?

Here it is: Stress is good for you, kids! See how stressed Mom and Dad are? That can be you, too! Stress is what you have to look forward to in college and beyond. Forget friends, fun, family, or even sleep! You'd better focus on school if you want to get ahead -- so that you can take on even more responsibility later!

Really? Is that what we mean by preparing children for a lifetime of learning? Sounds like the School of Hard Knocks to me.