One of the questions I'm asked a lot is how to help kids with homework, especially kids who are interested only in doing the minimum necessary or kids who pick and choose which assignments they are willing to turn in. Parents of such kids are locked in a power struggle that leaves them feeling desperate. Although what they really want is to find a way to "make" kids do their homework, it is only because they are concerned about them and their ability to make it as adults especially when they can't even get their school work done.
Before we talk about the child's role in these power struggles, let's talk more about how the parent feels. I know this feeling from the inside out because I've had the same issue with my teenage boys. I started to see evidence of my eldest son's plan to skate through school when he was in 6th grade. Actually, it was pointed out to me by his sixth grade teacher who was a male. When he wrote on my son's report card, "does the minimum necessary," I was a bit offended and called him up and pointed out the many ways in which the statement was untrue. Unfortunately, the teacher backpedaled and apologized to me, but I found out later that he had spotted a pattern that was not yet clear to me.
This pattern continued in middle school where my son continued to pick and choose his assignments and really did not apply himself. What disappointed me most was that my son was very smart, so smart, in fact, that he figured out which assignments counted more toward a passing grade and only turned those in. Unfortunately, this is a common practice among teenage boys. I hear complaints about it all the time from friends who provide good, supportive, loving homes and want more than anything for their kids to thrive.
What I'm trying to illustrate about the dilemma of how to help kids with homework is that our feelings as parents—our fear that our child's failure, lack of motivation or laziness is somehow tied to being a bad parent—are what drive us to resorting to measures that often shut our kids down and make the problem worse.
What's important for parents to realize is that although they are responsible for providing the environment and setting up the habits that help kids to thrive, kids are responsible for their choices. The only way that some kids will learn that doing well in school is important may be to fail and reap the consequences of those choices.
Of course the big fear here is that our kids don't care and will just continue down that path. If your son gets a "D" in Algebra, it could affect his ability to get into college and so you're probably worried less about whether people think you're a bad parent, than you are about your child's future.
1) Kids are responsible for their own choices. I said this before but it bears repeating. You can't make your child want to do well in school. You can't make him do his best. Understanding this takes some stress out of the power struggle over homework. This will help you to approach your child from a neutral stance, which in turn, will help him be more receptive to what you have to say.
2) While you can't make your child want to do well in school, you can set up rules and an environment that is conducive to doing well, especially if you establish these patterns early enough in your child's life. Some ideas for this: make a rule that homework must be completed before dinner while your child's energy is high. Once homework is finished, your child is free to do what he wants to do. This way, finishing homework and doing fun things become associated with each other in your child's mind. This also establishes homework as a priority.
3) Set up rewards. Rather than reward your child for good grades on a report card, studies show that rewarding children for progress made during the semester is much more effective in the long run and actually improves grades and increases test scores. For more about this, see my article on getting good grades. Rewards can be small such as mentioning how well your child did on a term paper to the family at dinner, posting it on the refrigerator or allowing your child to go to the movies with her friends. This is called progressive reinforcement because good behavior is encouraged over time.
4) Share stories of how certain choices can change the direction of our lives. For instance, I know a single dad who works as a waiter and struggles to make a living for his family, living from paycheck to paycheck. He's told his son that as a teen he refused to listen to his father who tried to get him to see how important it was for him to do well in school so he could go to college and get a good job. Unfortunately, he refused to listen and as an adult, was still affected by the choice that he made as a teen. After sharing this heartfelt story with his own son, his son started earning high marks in school.
5) If you have a child who is downright defiant about doing homework or has issues getting along with authority figures in school, then you probably need help establishing firm limits. If this describes your child, there is an at-home behavioral program that can help you learn how to help your child.
The final question that parents usually have with regard to how to help kids with homework is whether or not to punish kids who get poor grades. As a parenting author and workshop leader, I've always thought it was wrong to punish children twice because for most kids, the low grade will be a punishment or at least a source of humiliation.
What I recommend instead is to have family rules that are already in place such as privileges that are available only when kids maintain a certain GPA. For instance, most insurance companies give a "good student discount". You can extend this to driving privileges by having a rule that kids can have access to the family car as long as they maintain a 3.0 GPA. If they don't achieve that grade point average, then you are cancelling a privilege because they didn't earn it.
By the way, the son that I mentioned earlier who did the minimum in middle school and high school is now attending a university and earning excellent grades, so there is hope for your child. For some kids, an interest in learning is more a function of maturity and brain development than anything else.
Let's open this up for discussion. How have you helped your kids earn better grades in school? Do you believe in punishing kids who earn poor grades? If so, what are your rules? If not, please share why.
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About the author: Laura Ramirez is the author of the award-winning parenting book, Keepers of the Children: Native American Wisdom and Parenting.