Homework: the down side

Considering all the homework our kids are getting these days, we might as well be dressing them in prison stripes: It's a 12-year sentence. Why are we doing this to our kids? So we can get them into Harvard!

By over-working our kids, we're robbing them of their childhood. Kids need Messing Around Time and Staring at Clouds Time. Somewhere along the line, our society now views Messing Around Time as Useless Time - and we've turned our kids into over-worked Mini-Me's. If dad punches away at the computer until midnight, why can't junior do homework until 11 p.m.?

By the end of last school year, I couldn't recognize our family life. Each morning, I cringed as my 10- and 7-year-olds slung their over-sized backpacks on their shoulders. Each night, I watched them hit the books, looking like world-weary accountants during tax season. What their teachers described as half an hour of homework often took four hours.

Weekends offered little reprieve: more assignments due Monday. I was appalled that within their school day they had no daily recess (a whopping recess total of one per week!) to break the grind. Why? Too much to learn! Too little time!

Like many dads these days, I'd been bowled over by fatherhood. When they were little, we played hide and seek, and airplane, and had pillow fights. Only a few years later, mounds of homework were chipping away at that joy. I spotted rings under their eyes. I heard the school nurse complain of how many kids had tummy aches.

It seemed to me that all that homework wasn't great for marriage, either. Every parent I knew had been reduced to a homework taskmaster. They'd take turns chiding their kids: "Go do your homework." "Why are you dragging this out?" "Just do it!"

One dad told me how he even bribed his son: If he finished his homework, they'd let him watch the 10:30 p.m. re-run of "Seinfeld."

Clearly, Too Much Homework = Too Little Private Time for Parents. A romantic evening? Forget it! No romance until June! That weekly date with your spouse? Can't do it - no one to help junior with homework. What about a business trip? Homework help via fax or e-mail! With divorce rates at about 50 percent, the homework burden seemed like nationwide matrimonial suicide.

One night, I told my wife I'd had it with all the homework. She agreed. We went to the head of our private school. He said, "But I've got parents breathing down my neck about accelerating the kids' learning. Parents complain to me that their kids aren't reading in nursery school! They want higher board testing. It's all about competing." I said we were ready to change schools. He said we'd have trouble finding a school that didn't give comparable homework.

When did our society change? Homework was nearly outlawed in the '30s. The uptick began during the cold war, in the late '50s. It has increased steadily, with the greatest growth coming after the early '80s. A recent University of Michigan study shows that homework amounts, especially for younger kids, have tripled since then. Clarice Kestenbaum, president of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, told me, "The younger children, 6 to 8 years old, need time to play...." Homework, she said, "can literally stop a child's creativity."

It struck me that homework could even inhibit a child from rounding out into the sort of candidate colleges seek. It homogenizes our kids by giving them less time to expand their interests.

My wife and I began searching for a different school. It wasn't easy, but we found one that actually believes too much homework is detrimental to learning. During the interview, we were told their homework plan: half an hour for a 7-year-old, an hour for a 10-year-old. I asked, "But will my kids be able to compete?" The headmaster said, "Yes. Here's what we fear with too much homework: Kid withdrawal. Kid burn out. Kids' fear of failing and not trying new things, so they can get A's. Just as with work, there's a point where a kid's productivity drops. And imagination ends."

Sold! Our entire family hopped off the endless homework treadmill. But I'm still a little freaked. Eight years from now, if my daughter doesn't get into an Ivy League school, will she go into a post-adolescent tirade? Arghhh!!!

Maybe a couple months of computer-based summer camp in particle physics wouldn't be so bad, after all....

James Douglas Barron's newest book is 'She Wants a Ring - And I Don't Wanna Change a Thing' (Quill/HarperCollins). He is a board member of the National Parenting Association.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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