10/19/2012 03:58 pm ET Updated Dec 19, 2012

I Heart Homework... So Long As Someone Else Is Doing It


I used to have anxiety dreams that I had forgotten to do my homework. I'd wake up sweating, my heart pounding, certain I had humiliated myself in front of my teachers and classmates. I thought I had put those dreams behind me when I took my last exam 10 years ago, but they're back. Only now, they're about my son's homework.

Did I mention he's 4?

I have waxed poetic about my son's preschool on more than one occasion. It is a charming, beautiful, happy place. He loves it. I love it. It is perfect. For two years he's been making art projects, playing on the playground and taking naps. The learning happened surreptitiously. I thought his third and final year would be the same. More playing, more messy art projects, more circle time with some educational stuff thrown in when no one is looking.

So far, Little Dude is still playing with abandon and bringing home insane art projects. But that's not all he's doing. The "back to school" packet Little Dude's teachers sent home included an instruction to buy him a homework folder.

A homework folder.

My stomach did a little flip-flop. My preschool was a half-day affair at the local church and involved making wax paper stained glass and pinecone bird feeders. Homework was not part of the agenda. Even kindergarten avoided take-home assignments. We raised baby chicks, did finger painting, listened to stories and brought in things for show-and-tell. It was a good year, except for the day my classmate Butch smashed the glass poodle figurine I brought in when it was my turn to share. I occasionally envision an adult Butch in the local jail on vandalism charges.

Little Dude doesn't seem old enough to do homework, but I always listen to the teacher, so we went to the local drugstore where he picked out an ugly Angry Birds folder and proudly wrote his name on the front.

Aside from my initial surprise that preschoolers would be doing formal lessons, for the record, I'm generally a fan of homework. I don't care if it's hard, takes a long time or interferes with TV time. My Studious Stepson, a junior in high school, spends hours every day on his assignments, and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. I may be in the minority.

My only requirement is that kids do the homework themselves. I did my time. I do not need to re-learn my multiplication tables or (shudder) calculus. I will read essays to give feedback or brainstorm science projects. I'm happy to hold up flashcards. I will not, however, do homework for my kids. I will not type out assignments, create a poster or build a diorama. I do my work, I expect my kids to do theirs.

Which is why I'm in a quandary. On Monday, Little Dude's folder is filled with a handful of worksheets and he has until Friday to turn them in. Most of his assignments involve identifying shapes and colors, basic counting, and practicing handwriting. Once I read him the instructions, he can handle the majority of work on his own.

There is one exception: the Letter of the Week page. I hate the Letter of the Week page.

The letter of the week page requires Little Dude to pick a word that begins with, you guessed it, the letter of the week. (Last week was "X". To save themselves from 27 xylophones or x-rays, his teachers let the kids pick any word so long as it had an "x" in it.) No problem. Then he has to write the word, look-up its definition in the dictionary, write out the definition and then write a sentence containing the word.

Now we have a problem. I think my son is brilliant, but he can't read yet. Aside from his name, he can't spell. So, by default, I have to look up the definition and help Little Dude formulate a preschool friendly version as well as a sentence using the word in context. Then I have to spell all the words so he can write them down.

Suddenly, I'm doing homework. Which I'm against. I don't care that it's a good thing for Little Dude to learn to write, and it takes less than 20 minutes. I understand it is time with my kid when the TV is off, my cell phone safely stowed and the computer unplugged. I acknowledge that he's expanding his vocabulary, and we cover all sorts of topics we wouldn't otherwise talk about. I know I get to engage in his world and am grateful for the opportunity.

I still don't like that my kid has homework that he can't do by himself.

I know there are people who think I'm missing the point -- that homework for preschoolers is, itself, a bad idea. We'll have to agree to disagree on that one. So long as my son gets plenty of time to play, imagine, create and explore, I don't begrudge his teachers their decision to dole out a small batch of worksheets. My issue is that he can't really do the work without my help. I have to believe there are other ways to reinforce the same information. If I helped my stepson this much (who, it must be said, is a remarkably self-motivated guy who is always on top of his assignments), he'd be accused of cheating. I'd also have to brush up on physics, American History and English Literature. Maybe I should consider myself lucky that I'm only required to define one word a week.

So, although I'm not thrilled with it, I'll do as I'm told. Little Dude and I will sit at the kitchen table at night to get his work done. When he hits first grade though, all bets are off.