School has settled in and I am finding myself having conversations with other parents about homework. It is a huge issue for many children and their families.
The Problem: Sometimes, children come to homework happy to do it and keen to share what they are learning with us. However, many children regard homework as an unwelcome chore after a long day at school. If there is not unpleasantness and fighting about getting down to it, then once they start, it often seems to bring up big feelings.
And you? You are trying to get the dinner on, the baby bathed, and get your head around the maths problems your child is working on. You feel confused and unsure how to help, and before long, your child has exploded into yelling, tears and pencil throwing.
Get in touch with the teachers: If homework is a problem in your house, it is important to go and see your child’s teacher and see if there is something that can be done to help. Teachers generally welcome feedback on how it is going at home, and it may be that they can help find ways of doing the work which will make learning easier for your child. But in the end, you will probably find yourself having to deal with at least some homework coming home.
What is homework good for? There are many issues raised by homework which I won’t go into here except to say that few of the claims that are made for homework are well supported by research.*1 But I can tell you one thing homework is good for: upsets.
This claim is backed up by years of practical experience in my home, and the homes of my friends and colleagues. We parents have a very special role to play here. It is a role that it would be hard for any other adult in a school environment to play, given the ratios of adults to children in school. This role is not about helping a child solve maths problems or do their spelling (although that might be what it looks like you are doing from the outside). Our special role is to help our children unload the emotional tensions they have accumulated throughout the day, the week, and their school life. We are specially placed to help children with upsets.
You may not understand the maths, but you can understand the emotions. School is a challenging environment, and our children accumulate all sorts of emotional tensions throughout the day. Some of these will be about what happened in the day – either about learning, or about something else – someone was mean to them, there are social difficulties, or there was a learning challenge which was just too hard. Other upsets a child might be carrying could be nothing to do with school, but with some other aspect of their life – daddy is away or your family is under pressure in some way. Or there could be something about school, or about homework, which is pulling up much older feelings and difficulties – left over from stressful times in their early life. The feelings that underlie the shouting, hot tears and angry words that erupt at homework time can be about all of these things. As Patty Wipfler, Founder of Hand in Hand Parenting says “Today’s homework assignment provides the perfect peg on which to hang the feelings [your child has] carried along for years. Plan for this.”*2
Listening to children’s upsets will help. Once a child is upset, you may need to give up on getting the homework done – at least in the short term. What you want to do at this point is hold out the expectation that they will do the homework, relaxedly, gently and warmly. You are giving them something to push against – the prospect of doing the homework – and this will, quite likely, pull up the feelings which underly the difficulty they are having with it.
You might say something like “I’m sorry it is so hard for you.” or “You don’t have to do this on your own.”, but don’t push. Your goal at this moment is not to get them “down to their homework” but to help them with the feelings which come up. You are “anchoring” your child though the storm.
Five words or less: In Hand in Hand Parenting we would see this as a limit setting exercise. And in general, we recommend “five words or less” when bringing limits. If you find yourself saying more than a few words at a time, you have probably started to talk about how you are feeling. Once your child’s emotion has started to flow, you don’t want to distract them from this with a lot of words.
Resist the temptation to reason, explain, argue, “teach” or “help”, threaten or punish. When they are upset, they will not be able to process any information you give them, or remember and agreements they might have made. And threats and punishments will only frighten them, and put more distance between you. Just stay close, and listen.
In their upset, your child might target you: “it’s all your fault”, and they might even get angry and aggressive, like in the story below. It is important that you keep yourself and everyone else safe – your child can’t do that right now. All you may need to do is gently block an angry hand. You child is showing you just how hard and tight these feelings are, and deep down they have decided you are the safe place to point those feelings. You could regard it as a badge of honour.
Hard as it might feel, if you can stay warm, not take it personally, and not react, the storm will pass. And on the other side will be a child who wants to be close to you, can let you help them, and can think about how to tackle the learning task. In Hand in Hand Parenting, we call listening to a child like this Staylistening.
Read a lovely story of how a mother did just that, as her boy tried to learn his ABC’s.
*1″Inquiry into the Approaches to Homework in Victorian Schools“, Education and Training Committee, Victorian Parliament, Parliamentary Paper, August 2014,
*2 Wipfler, P. (n.d.). Homework Struggles: Lightening the Homework Load. Retrieved October 25, 2017.
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© 2020 by Madeleine Winter.