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Whose Homework? l June 2014

For too many families, homework time has become the organizing element in the hours between 5 and 10 p.m., dictating when dinner is served, how parents spend their evening, what family activities can or cannot occur. Many parents are slaves to a steady stream of “Can you help me?” or “I don’t understand this” or “What am I supposed to do on this worksheet?”

A 2013 report of the National Center for Family Literacy found that 50 percent of surveyed parents struggle when it comes to helping their children with homework, often because they themselves don’t understand the material, or their child isn’t welcoming the assistance, or they simply can’t make the time amid everything else that demands their attention.1 For many parents, homework time is stressful all around.

But why should parents be stressed? Whose homework is it anyway — theirs or the children’s?

Reviewing three decades of research about American parents and their kids’ academic lives, one research team came to the conclusion that parental involvement in kids’ homework yields few benefits for children, and might even backfire.2 “Consistent homework help almost never improved test scores or grades,” the researchers found. “Most parents appear to be ineffective at helping their children with homework. Even more surprising was that when parents regularly helped with homework, kids usually performed worse.”3 Once upon a time, teachers — not parents — reviewed children’s homework, meting out necessary consequences for shabby or incomplete effort. It worked well then and it can work well now, provided we step aside, stop “enabling,” and remind ourselves that some of life’s most important lessons are only learned through mistakes or failure.

What could parents be doing if they weren’t overly involved at homework time? How about Mom and Dad sharing a glass of wine and catching up on the events of their day — in other words, nurturing the marital relationship, upon which children’s sense of security absolutely depends. Or how about parents using that time to unwind after a long day — reading the paper, surfing the Web, taking a speed walk — recharging their batteries to be better available to the kids (or spouse) after the homework is done.

There’s not a lot of time for parents and children to be together during the school week; why squander it being the homework police?

1 http://www.familieslearning.org/public/uploads/press_releases/1388265133.4NBO.PR-Half-of-Parents-09-2013.pdf
2 Robinson, Keith and Angel L. Harris. The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement with Children’s Education. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) 2014.
3 Robinson, Keith and Angel L. Harris. “Parental Involvement Is Overrated.” New York Times, April 12, 2014.

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Fifty Years of Dreikurs l April/May 2014

In the car, the kids get noisy and rambunctious. You’re distracted by their bickering and loud voices. You’ve admonished them many times during car rides but their behavior hasn’t changed. What should you do?

Arguably the finest child management system ever developed is celebrating fifty years of guiding parents to sanity and effectiveness: Rudolf Dreikurs’ Children: The Challenge. Much copied by other parenting books since its 1964 debut, Dreikurs’ system shows parents how to allow natural and logical consequences to deliver the lessons we want our kids to learn (without relying on yelling or spanking or other conventional punishments).

Minutes after arriving at work, you receive a text from your daughter indicating that she left her lunchbox on the kitchen counter that morning ... and will you bring it to her at school? What should you do?

We all need a system, an approach that guides us in how to handle the many difficult moments occurring throughout the child-rearing years. No license is required to raise children; no certificate affirming that we’ve completed some essential class. Do we know what we’re doing? With a system like Dreikurs, we enjoy the confidence that comes from parenting with a consistent set of tried-and-true principles; we’re not starting from scratch with each challenging moment.

Despite your second request, the children haven’t come upstairs for dinner. This happens regularly and you’re tired of always yelling after them. What should you do?

Especially in a two-parent family, a shared system bestows the added benefit of both parents working from the same roadmap. It’s natural that two parents, each with their own family backgrounds and personalities and temperaments, will approach discipline from different perspectives, sometimes tripping over one another. Sharing a child guidance approach reduces those disheartening times when frustration with the kids turns into frustration with a spouse.

Become a more effective parent by adopting Children: The Challenge as your child management guidebook. Thousands of used copies, decades old but in fine condition, float in cyberspace for as little as a quarter. For something as important as child rearing, don’t fly by the seat of your pants; embrace a wise system.

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Are You Okay? l March 2014

We say it often — “Are you okay?” — when we notice that our child’s mood seems “off,” or he’s experiencing an emotional setback, or she’s tripped on the pavement or fallen off her bike. We say it because we care; we’re concerned.

The problem is, “are you okay?” closes rather than opens conversation, alienates rather than builds connection. Kids tend to answer with a simple “yes” when clearly they’re not so okay; they say “yes” because nobody wants to think of himself as “not okay.” But we know there’s more going on, that they’re experiencing distress of some sort — which is why we inquire in the first place. Youngsters don’t always know how to talk about their distress, their tough emotions; they need our help finding the right words and making sense of what can be confusing to them. “Are you okay?” offers none of that.

What kids need from us during their moments of distress is attunement(think: tuned-in), our being “in touch” with what they might be feeling — and transmitting to them that we see (or sense) some feelings stirring.* Here’s how attunement can sound:

  • 4-year-old slips off the monkey bars and tumbles onto the sand below. She runs to you in tears. Rather than asking, “Are you okay?” you say, “That must hurt! Look how upset you are!”
  • 10-year-old appears vexed as he sits in front of his video game screen. Rather than asking, “Are you okay?” you say, “You seem really frustrated.”
  • 12-year-old reads a letter indicating that he didn’t make the cut for a neighborhood sports team. Visible emotion crosses his face. Instead of asking, “Are you okay?” you say, “You look disappointed, and maybe sad.”
  • 16-year-old lies across the sofa staring at the ceiling with a lost and troubled look on her face. You can’t even guess at her emotions. Instead of asking, “Are you okay?” you can at least say, “I sense difficult feelings right now.”

When our children receive an attuned, empathic and accepting response from us at the times their difficult emotions stir, they feel less alone, and less confused about their emotional experience through the language we give them to understand and label their feelings.** Plus they feel better about themselves knowing their emotions aren’t somehow weird or inappropriate. Over time, our empathic attunement is an important way we promote their self-confidence and mental health.

But we don’t achieve any of that by saying, “Are you okay?”

*Siegel, Daniel J. and Mary Hartzell (2003), Parenting from the Inside Out. (New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.)

** By labeling emotions, we’re inviting the rational left brain (via the prefrontal cortex) to regain hold of the steering wheel from the emotional right brain, which had seized it and taken us on its unchecked joyride. It’s only the rational brain, the seat of logic and self-control, which can steer us wisely to a balanced and healthy destination.

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