Perfect Homework

Well, the Staples® ad has started running. You know the one – parents dancing through the aisles loading up the cart with school supplies while the kids mope miserably behind them? That must mean it’s time for a back-to-school blog post. The inspiration for this one is a little guy with Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) who was brought in to see me by his father, a stay-at-home dad, primarily because of homework battles. Dad’s take on the homework problem was that Alonzo did not care about his homework and put much too little effort into his assignments. Alonzo believed that his father was overly critical and demanding. He summed up his point of view very well when he said,

I’m not perfect so why should my homework be?   Alonzo, age 8

According to Alonzo, no matter how carefully he completed his homework, it was never neat enough or correct enough. Each evening, Dad would go over his assignments and insist that Alonzo clarify something here, elaborate on something there, and perfect everything. All this, even though Alonzo was a bright little boy who was doing well in 3rd grade. As a result, Alonzo had stopped taking responsibility for the quality of his homework; he had stopped putting effort into the work because he knew his Dad would make him redo it anyway. An even bigger problem was brewing, however. Alonzo was beginning to see himself as a “bad” student. Not only was he giving up a sense of ownership of his work, he was beginning to dislike school.

One of the first things I do when I meet a family experiencing school-related struggles is obtain permission to talk to the child’s teacher. I want to know what the teacher’s expectations are regarding homework. Does she want the child to complete homework independently or does she expect a parent to review it? Would he prefer his students get help at home when needed or wait to get help at school? I also want to understand how explicit the teacher has been about the expectations and how the expectations were communicated to parents and students.

Alonzo’s teacher, the brilliant and devoted Mrs. P., was eager to talk to me because she had observed a worrisome change in his attitude about school. An eager and attentive student during the first semester, Alonzo had become unfocused and unenthusiastic in the classroom. Mrs. P. wondered if he had been taken off the medication he took for ADHD. When I asked Mrs. P. about her expectations regarding homework, she was very clear. She expected her students to complete their homework independently. When they were stumped by questions or problems, they were to do their best and write at the top of the page the items for which they needed assistance. Mrs. P. considered homework a measure of her students’ level of understanding of new material. She had shared her expectations in an introduction letter sent to parents over the summer, at Back To School night, and on her classroom website. In fact, I looked at the website and found the following:

Parents are responsible for providing an appropriate space, the necessary supplies, and plenty of time for doing homework, but it is the students’ responsibility to write  assignments in homework planners, to take required materials home, and to complete work independently. (Thank you for these words of wisdom, Mrs. P.!)

When I met with Alonzo and Dad a second time, I checked in with them about their understanding of Mrs. P.’s homework expectations. Dad was fully aware he was doing more than the teacher wanted. Still, he was uncomfortable allowing his son to go to school with messy and/or incorrect homework. He felt it reflected badly on him as a parent. Dad also had preconceived notions about children with ADHD which caused him to worry excessively about Alonzo’s academic achievement. These factors were contributing to Dad’s over-involvement.

Understandably, Alonzo was uncomfortable with Dad’s over-involvement in his homework. At times, Alonzo felt like he was cheating by correcting mistakes his father pointed out. And, as Alonzo noted, sometimes Mrs. P. thought he understood his homework better than he really did. These factors were contributing to Alonzo’s waning enthusiasm about school.

When parents micromanage homework or projects, they inadvertently communicate that they do not have confidence in their child’s ability. Their behavior says “I do not value your ideas.” In addition, it suggests that there is only one right way to accomplish a task. When a parent exerts too much control over a child’s work, the child may fail to learn to take responsibility for completing assignments. The child may be less likely to feel accountable when an assignment doesn’t turn out well or to feel proud when one does.

For Alonzo and his father, the goal of therapy was to clarify who was responsible for what in terms of homework. Dad took charge of creating a work space that minimized distractions, making sure that Alonzo always had plenty of paper, pencils, poster boards, markers, etc., and managing his son’s activities so that Alonzo was not over-scheduled. All of these are very important ways that parents can help children succeed in school. In addition, Dad agreed to monitor Alonzo’s medication in the morning before school since this was an important factor for his academic success. Alonzo agreed that he would consistently write his assignments in his planner, try very hard to make sure that he arrived home with necessary materials, and take sole responsibility for completing all homework assignments neatly and to the best of his ability. After a trial period of one marking period, it was clear that Alonzo needed additional support to gather materials at school to take home for homework, so Dad was given the additional task of communicating regularly with Mrs. P. to anticipate or resolve problems. By the end of 3rd grade, Alonzo was enjoying school again, was making very good grades, and taking ownership of his work. Dad was feeling more relaxed and was able to sit back, provide support to Alonzo only when asked, and enjoy watching his son blossom as a student.

Several months after we ended therapy, Dad came back to see me for a brief period. He was struggling to feel comfortable in his role as a stay-at-home father. His wife had a very high-paying job that required a great deal of travel, and the couple had made the joint decision that he would quit his job when their third child was born. He still believed it was the right decision for the family, but he felt an internal pressure to do a “perfect” job as a father and homemaker since he wasn’t using his advanced degree or earning an income. Once I heard him talk about this pressure to be a perfect father/homemaker, the pressure he had placed on Alonzo made much more sense. Dad and I spent time together exploring the pros and cons of striving for perfection and the pros and cons of accepting “good enough.” He left therapy committed to the latter but with a lot of work to do to achieve this acceptance.

One of the cons of perfection that Dad and I discussed was the risk to his children. He understood that his exacting behavior could cause his children to feel that they were not good enough. Despite Dad’s lifelong tendency toward perfectionism, the risk that his children’s self-esteem would suffer was the motivation he needed to begin the process of change. When Dad ended therapy I was confident that the work he was doing to change his perfectionism would greatly benefit not just Dad but Alonzo and his younger siblings as well.

So, Mom and Dad, Grandparent and Guardian, as the new school year quickly approaches, think about what your role in your child’s homework should and shouldn’t be. Find ways to play an active and supportive role without being controlling or critical. Be encouraging and positive. Demonstrate that you believe in your child’s ability and that you value his ideas. Let her know that there are many ways to do a project, write a paper, and solve a math problem and that your way is not necessarily better than hers. Avoid demanding perfectionism from yourself or your child. Remember the words of a very wise woman: The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice (Peggy O’Mara, Editor-in-Chief, mothering.com).

[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]
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About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates (www.southamptonpsychiatric.com) which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
This entry was posted in Elementary/Lower School, High/Upper School, Middle/Junior High School and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Perfect Homework

  1. Sunshine says:

    Great advice! It’s so hard to step away from the homework folder and not look over their shoulder, but it’s the best thing for them! Shared your article on FB!

  2. Pingback: Electronic Umbilical Cords | What Kids Want Us to Know

  3. Pingback: The Homework Tree | What Kids Want Us to Know

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