09/08/2011 04:27 pm ET Updated Nov 08, 2011

My Son Thinks Homework Is Optional

Dear Susan,

How can I make my 11-year-old see that homework is not optional? Threats don't work, nor does deprivation of a favorite toy or privilege. I'm at my wit's end.

Wit's End

Dear Wit's End,

I talk a lot about how parents need to be the captain of the ship in their child's life. This means that while you should help your son do his homework, you shouldn't need him to do it. Anytime you need anything from your son, you put him in the position of either giving you what you desire -- in this case, doing his homework -- or of watching you squirm as he denies your request.
You weaken yourself and give your boy too much power by letting him know how desperately you want him to do his schoolwork. I'm not suggesting you shouldn't offer your help and encouragement; it's vital that parents take an interest in their children's education. But let me remind you of something: Your son has homework at night ... and you don't! Back off, and stop caring so much.

Make it less interesting for him to engage in a battle with you about it, and position yourself more as a supporter and less of a taskmaster. Offer to help him deal with his procrastination by setting a timer for seven minutes. Suggest that he work until the timer goes off, then run around the yard for a minute or two and come back for another seven-minute session. (It's much easier for kids to do something unpleasant if they can see light at the end of the tunnel.) Or play a game where you deliberately try to distract him while he puts heart and soul into ignoring you. (Kids love this one!) You can also teach him the "10 Minute Rule," suggesting that he work on something for just 10 minutes, at which point he can decide to finish or take a break.

Usually, once kids have gotten started, it's easier to keep going. Rather than resorting to bribes or threats, come alongside your son, acknowledging the challenge of having to do something he doesn't like, and offering ideas for making it a little less painful. Be that captain of the ship, helping your son through the rough waters, without jumping overboard! Best of luck!

Yours in parenting support,

Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.