I’m not a parent. As such, my opinions about raising human beings have relatively little validity. On the other hand, I’m an avid observer of human nature, and for the past couple of decades I’ve spent a lot of time watching and discussing the experiences of parents around me. And I always Have Opinions even when I’m not an expert. And, I’m trying to develop my writing skills, by articulating my thoughts about complex subjects. So that’s your disclaimer for this post – I’m blathering about a topic on which I have no expertise, for the purposes of organizing my thoughts and practicing my writing.
A dear friend who is doing an amazing job raising three boys recently asked for advice. It seems her son has been arriving home from school, reporting he is unable to do his homework because he has forgotten some vital component – the assignment itself for example, or the textbook. My friend is not alone; this seems to be a universal experience in parenting, based on how often I hear this complaint among my friends.
As I thought about the issue, it struck me that there’s several aspects to the problem, all of which have to be addressed in order to find a successful solution:
- Motivation. At its worst, the child could be deliberately “forgetting” because in the absence of homework, he might be free to spend his time doing something much more pleasurable. More commonly, a lot of kids seem to fall into a mindset where it’s the parent’s job to keep them on track, and their role to wiggle away from as much responsibility as possible. With that mindset, the child has no motivation to work harder at remembering – he doesn’t see it as his problem to solve.
- Ability – Even if the child feels some motivation to do better, he may flounder because he has no real idea how to do better. Kids have a tendency to just try the same approach over and over to achieve their goals, even if it repeatedly fails them. Once the child is motivated to change, he’ll need some specific help finding improvement strategies.
- Academic progress – in a lot of primary school subjects, failing to master today’s work makes tomorrow’s work that much harder. And yet change doesn’t happen overnight. So, how to ensure the child doesn’t fall dangerously behind while he’s working through the challenge of becoming self-motivated and competent at managing his work?
So, what strategy might work to address the problem, keeping all of these considerations in mind?
My recommendation, in sum, would be answering poor performance with remedial academic work, creating consequences (both positive and negative) for both short-term and long-term performance, and offering the child assistance in finding and implementing strategies to improve his performance.
In the short term, failure to bring home homework should never result in extra play time. Ideally, the child would spend the time doing a block of homework-like activity. One could acquire homeschooling materials appropriate for the child’s grade level (the teacher could probably suggest something appropriate), and use those to give assignments so he won’t fall behind. Or, the child could be assigned work directed at the forgetting problem itself – such as reading an article about a technique for improving memory, then writing a essay summarizing the technique and discussing whether it would be helpful for this situation. That would develop general academic skills while presenting him with ideas about how to do better.
In addition to this daily activity, longer-term incentives have to be in place and communicated well in advance. There should be clear expectations for term grades, rewards for meeting expectations, and consequences for missing them. These mentioned often enough that when the time comes, the kids are completely aware of why these consequences are occurring. For kids who have a lot of trouble (or very little experience) managing their behavior for longer-term consequences, it may help to create more medium-term rewards and punishments (which would require collaboration with the teacher in most cases).
As with the daily homework situation, the consequence for doing poorly on a subject could be the “opportunity” to learn more about the subject. For example, kids who do well might be offered extra time doing something they like, while those who do poorly would spend that time with a parent or tutor (if budgets allow), reviewing the subjects they failed. Repairing those knowledge and skill gaps sets them up for better success in the next term.
Ideally, when there’s no motivation to deliberately forget homework, and there are positive and negative consequences for short-term and long-term performance, the kid will develop his own motivation to improve. When he complains about the consequences he is experiencing, that’s the time to offer to assist him with a strategy to do better. Make sure he participates in the analysis of what’s happening, brainstorming for solutions, and choosing a solution to try. If he resists or tries to make it your problem, back off – the parent’s mantra should be “when you’re ready to do better, we’re ready to help you figure out how”.
Would this work? I believe it would for many kids. I’m not naive enough to think this would be the entire plan, though. Kids being kids, once a strategy is agreed upon, they could still try to make it the parent’s problem to implement. No parent wants to ask “did you fill out your homework journal” only to get a whining, resentful reply. So there’s likely an ongoing challenge of continuing to remind the child to have ownership of his own problem, and gratitude for those who help him solve it. And, it would require a lot of customization and adaptation over time, in response to events as they occur. What if the child starts concealing the existence of homework instead of saying he forgot it? What if he flat-out refuses to do an assignment, engaging in a battle of wills? What about tangential situations, like forgetting to mention the need for school supplies at the last minute?
The plan would have to adapt as the situation changes. The key is to consider the initial goals while responding to new situations. That way the response can make sure it’s still requiring the child to own his own progress, develop the skills to do better in future, and maintain academic progress as it’s all happening.
So there it is. A lengthy blather about a topic I have no authority to blather on. Enjoy!