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Whose Homework Is It, Anyway?


As another school year approaches, I'm reminding myself to butt-out of my daughter's homework. It helps to reread Marie's first report — a short essay that I helped her with.

Each third-grader had to research an endangered species and write up the findings. Marie had chosen the manatee, the gentle Florida sea cow that is being killed off by speedboat-propellers. She gathered the information, but couldn't get started on the writing.

I thought: Here's where being my child will really pay off for her.

She had distilled her research into 36 quickly chosen words, written in a wild scrawl that looked like a serial killer's confession
Hadn't I penned the provocative eighth-grade report about the man who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel — "Aaron Burr: Genius and Fiend." In fifth grade, I'd compiled the booklet "Who Did It? What Did They Do?" It laid bare the facts on such inventions as Robert Shreeve's snag-busting riverboat and Cyrus McCormick's reaper. And who can forget my sixth-grade treatise on the digestive system, with the frank title of "After You Eat It?"

Who better to help a young writer find her way?

"Do it in three parts," I advised my frustrated young disciple. "First describe manatees — what they look like, where they live, what they eat, and so on. Second, explain why they are endangered. And third, say what's being done to help them; take a look at their future."

I had barely begun speaking when her eyes glazed over. Her frustration was turning into anger. When I finished, Marie burst into tears and ran upstairs to her room. I didn't pursue her.

Fifteen minutes later, she came back down and slapped a piece of lined paper down in front of me. She had distilled her research into 36 quickly chosen words, written in a wild scrawl that looked like a serial killer's confession: "1. Manatees are dumb. They move slow 'cause they're stupid. 2. The boats run them over because manatees are too dumb to get away. 3. I wish all manatees were dead so I wouldn't have to write about them. The End."

"Nice work," I said.

"Thanks," she said, with a bitter smile. Then, writer's block dislodged, she went back up to her room and wrote a more temperate report. It lacked the passion of her first draft, but it was more complete and informative.

Last year, Marie was in fourth grade and for the first half of the school year I involved myself in her homework, grilling her after school about her assignments, figuring out when she should do them, and telling her how. Despite the flashes of brilliance cited above from my own scholastic career, I hadn't been especially timely or thorough about homework, so I was eager to see the next generation do better. Isn't that a parent's job?

Marie was so vague about her assignments that I felt as though I was inter- rogating a captured spy!
But my involvement had a bad effect. Marie was disengaging from the whole homework thing. We hit bottom one day when Marie was so vague about her assignments that I felt as though I was interrogating a captured spy. So I marched right over to the school to get accurate information from her teacher. Walking home, it struck me that the next logical step would be for me to DO the homework and put it into Marie's backpack where it could be easily found by the teacher.

Later that week, my wife brought home "Ending the Homework Hassle," a book by John Rosemond, a tough cookie, who is my favorite parenting authority. He doesn't know it, but he's the expert father I never had. Whenever I reject his advice, I end up regretting my disobedience.

In his book, Mr. Rosemond's main premise is: "The more responsibility you take for your child's homework, the less responsibility your child will take." Although he offers detailed instructions for handling the kids who will not accept the responsibility, his book cites case after case of dopey parents getting over-involved in their kids' homework. It was unpleasant seeing myself as a textbook case, but Mr. Rosemond didn't get where he is today by sparing the rod.

Within the week, I had fallen in with the Rosemond recovery program, which included making this little speech: "Marie, you're a smart kid, and I know you can handle the responsibility of your homework. It's yours; I hereby give it back to you. Let me know if you have a problem."

I'm now out of the homework business. Marie is learning to manage her time and to handle responsibility. Crises still occur, but they are infrequent. Sometimes deadlines appear from out of nowhere. Sometimes assignments are interpreted by Marie in such a way as to be impossible. Then we intervene. But otherwise, we leave it up to her. And to my embarrassment, Marie's grades have actually improved.

Mr. Rosemond has robbed me of my chance to improve on my spotty grade-school performance of yesteryear. But at least I still have the satisfaction of having authored "Aaron Burr: Genius and Fiend" And my parents didn't even help.

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