Who Takes Responsibility for Homework? What is the Parent’s Role?

Even though parents and teachers are both educators, things will work better if parents and teachers play different roles. A year ago Lorrie Soria told the following story in a comment on one of my posts about homework. I read it again this morning and decided it stands on its own two feet as a great story about “playing position.”

Years ago, when my daughter was in 3rd grade, homework was indeed a struggle. After one particularly grueling go-around, I mentioned the struggle to my daughter’s teacher. She told me to make sure my daughter had a suitable place to study, a set amount of time in which to do so, and all the requisite materials. She suggested I set a timer, be close by to offer assistance, let my child know I was there, and then make myself scarce. At the end of the time allotted on the timer, I was to have my child put her homework away. If it was done, it was done; if not, then my child could discuss the issue with her teacher the next day. Her philosophy was that if my daughter couldn’t finish her homework within the amount of time then either my daughter didn’t understand the assignment, there was too much assigned, or she had not spent her time wisely. Ms. M. told me that she’d figure it out so it wouldn’t be a battleground at home.

Well, that afternoon, I set my daughter up at the kitchen table with all her materials and books, offered help (which was declined), let her know I’d be in the next room if she needed help after all, set the timer, and then left her to it. When the timer went off, I went in to clear the kitchen table for dinner. My daughter had barely done anything, and when I asked her to clear things up, she got upset. I told her calmly what Ms. M had said – either she had too much work, didn’t understand what she needed to do, or hadn’t used her time properly. In either case, I told my child, Ms. M. needed to know what was going on. If there was too much work, she needed to know so she could adjust the amount. If my daughter didn’t understand what needed doing, Ms. M would explain it to her again. If she hadn’t used her time wisely, well, she could do her homework the next day at recess time.
Faced with the options, my daughter begged for another chance to do her homework after dinner, and explained that she did know how to do her work, but didn’t want to sit for so long to do it. However, she didn’t want to have to sit during recess the next day, so if I’d give her another chance, she’d do what she needed to do. I asked her to clear up, help me set the table, and we’d see how things went after dinner.

After dinner, she went, of her own accord, grabbed her materials and books and sat down at the kitchen table to work on her homework. In a relatively short span of time (certainly less than she’d spent earlier), her work was done, and done well. I told her how proud I was that she’d taken responsibility for getting the work done, while secretly blessing this wise young teacher for handing me a solution that took the battle out of homework.

After that afternoon, any time there was homework fuss, for her or for our son, we simply moved to put the homework away. If there was indeed a question, it surfaced at that time, and assistance was either given or a note was written to the teacher requesting additional help. If there was no question, but the kids felt they had just had enough studying for one day, they knew they’d face the consequence the next day. Because there were no battle lines drawn, the policy opened a number of wonderful conversations about such things as the importance of homework and responsibility, self-esteem, intelligence, and the future applications of XYZ subject (fill in geometry, Civil War battle names, etc.).

When I became a teacher, I offered the same advice to my parents and students, with similar results. It continues to be one of my favorite discussion topics.

Thank you, again, Lorrie. Nice illustration of “genius” Principle F: When you care more about it than your child, it absolves the child of responsibility.


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13 thoughts on “Who Takes Responsibility for Homework? What is the Parent’s Role?

  1. Schools around here are assigning homework starting in kindergarten, to “build a work ethic”.

    I think you probably know what I think about that.

    Oddly enough, though, I was my daughter’s homework helper until about 6th grade. You see, she was (and is) dyslexic so I read textbooks etc to her, and scribed her responses until she became adept at typing.

    On the other hand, by high-school she was more self-reliant about homework than most of her peers.

  2. Important story, Liz, about differences among children and how hard it would be to find a formula that works for all kids.

  3. Great advice! It does get a bit tricky when the teacher setting the homework either doesn’t check it regularly, has no follow-up other than to complain to the parent or is not consistent. Maybe I should forward this article to the teachers that I both work with and who teach my kids (must be a pain teaching your colleague’s kids) 🙂

  4. nice, Vicki. Sounds like at least talking about it with them would be helpful in a variety of ways. Tricky, but worth doing.

  5. Hi Rick, One of my favorites! Playing position–it’s really becoming lost in the mists these days (at least in private schools), what with overly anxious parents tracking their child’s every move; overly involved administrators who believe that whatever “the client” (read paying parent) says must be right; and stressed out teachers who are getting it from all sides and are expected to solve all problems of all their students! And who sits back and watches the fray? The child!! It’s the adults’ problem; why should the child get involved? Kids are very talented at creating the smoke screen that sets off the adults and distracts them from the real issues at hand.

  6. This is a fantastic example of how parents and teachers should work together. You do need cooperation from both. As my daughter enters kindergarten next year I will keep this story in mind and, I think, share it with my husband.

  7. Come on parents and teachers, gather around; let’s dig a little deeper on this one, after all, homework is a common lot in life and a frequent burden.

    Rick posted a charming success story that attracted our attention and tickled the skin of that ‘elephant’ called homework by pointing out the proper ownerships of responsibility. Lorrie’s third-grade daughter was lucky enough to have an attentive forward-focused teacher and a parent who appreciated that, to win in the game of life, team members need to know and stick to their role. No wonder the child excelled when she got back the responsibility for her own homework!

    Here is my first “but”: it’s the same as Vicki’s; what happens “when the teacher setting the homework … (isn’t there for your child; fumbles the ball, maybe repeatedly)”? … Nature dictates that the parent instinctively steps into the void, assumes the role of homework-supervisor. Thus the lines of responsibility get messed up and stress levels escalate.

    And my second “but”: what happens when my compliant third-grader becomes a tween then a teen with a slew of competing responsibilities and priorities at top of mind, and no concept of how this friggin’ algebra homework can possibly help with any one of them? …

    Self responsibility works when the objective is desirable and within sight, and distractions can be minimized but (#3 if you’re counting!) how can today’s busy parents, themselves distracted every which way, keep the homework acoming and their child on some kinda track for a six-figure income? …

    This dad of a son, 13 years old but going on 18, and a daughter of 12 going on 16, humbly requests input from those who’ve ‘been there, done that.’

    Have a wonderful rest-of-Easter!
    Montessori-AMI Parent Peter in Toronto

  8. Peter, thanks for your comment and the three but’s.
    I would react, BUT, they are just good points.
    well, with the third but, I will say that making sure that your children are on track for certain salary levels seems like a normal thing for a parent to wish, BUT such wishes, goals hopes dreams for your children are notoriously bad ideas. They will track to wherever they are tracking, and keeping them in charge of their own homework is an key ingredient for success, however defined.
    Teenager? At some ages, parents just have to hang tougher.

  9. Ah yes, Rick; my but’s came back to but me in the butt! … but, I confess, I was glaringly glib in slotting in the stereotype parental objective of a “six-figure income.”

    BUT our household has another layer of homework above and beyond that set by school, we call it Continuing Education. My son, in grade 8, must do 80 minutes of homework 5 days a week and my daughter, in grade 7, 70 minutes. When their school-set homework is done, and done to their satisfaction, they get to choose their CE work (sometimes somewhat influenced by Dad!).

    Plus they must do 60+ minutes of physical excersize every day and 30+ minutes of music 5 days a week; and, I nearly forgot, have their five servings of fruit and veg each day!

    Thanks, Rick, for permitting this parent to pontificate so profusely!
    Parent Peter

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