Suzanne Tobias

Parents of older students should not be ‘slaves to homework’

Should adults help children with their homework? If so, how much?
Should adults help children with their homework? If so, how much? Getty Images

Want to get parents riled up?

Ask them what they think about homework.

Do teachers assign too much homework? Not enough? The right stuff? Just busy work? Should parents help? If so, how much?

Earlier this week, on that first depressing day back to school after the holiday break, I shared a link on my Facebook page to a HuffPost Education essay by Michael Levin, titled “Am I The Only Parent Who Thinks Today’s Homework Load Is Insane?”

Levin got right to the point with the headline.

He went on to say that he and his family are “slaves to homework,” that the daily workload for his ninth- and sixth-graders is “mind-boggling,” and that his happy home is now a “homework hell.”

Harsh, but not surprising.

My children and their friends – high-schoolers in rigorous academic programs – are a homework-weary crowd. Their parents, like me, struggle almost daily with the notion that they could waste away their precious childhoods hunched over calculus formulas and Homer’s “Odyssey.” But that’s nothing new.

We have regular conversations, my children and I, about their academic paths and their big-picture plans and dreams. There have been high-fives, tears, long nights, hard choices and a whole lot in between – most of it in between, actually, in that nebulous realm of wonder, hope, confusion and insecurity where most of life happens.

I agree with much of what Levin contends, including the idea of an “educational arms race” where parents fear that if children aren’t drowning in homework, they won’t get into a top school or secure that crucial scholarship. There’s a lot of that going around.

But here’s where I parted philosophies with the HuffPost writer: He claims he and his wife are “doing more homework” as adults than they did in their own childhoods.

“I’d complain more,” Levin wrote about his middle- and high-schoolers’ ungodly workloads, “but I have to do math right now with my kids.”

Do you?

Helping a young child with a special project is one thing. Quizzing older ones on biology terms or proofreading a research paper? OK. Making sure kids have the supplies they need, writing test dates on the calendar, turning off the television, stocking the fridge with healthy snacks, stroking their backs when they feel frustrated – all reasonable tasks for parents of middle- and high-schoolers.

But doing the math? Doing their homework? For hours? Nah.

For one thing, my children realized years ago that I’m not much help. I took chemistry, Latin, physics and calculus, but 30 years ago. Even my English-major strong suits, like identifying the symbolism in “Animal Farm” or “Lord of the Flies,” aren’t so strong if I haven’t read the book in decades.

After I posted the link on my Facebook page, adding my contention that older students should do their own homework, an avalanche of comments reflected parents’ passion about or against homework. Some said it’s reasonable for parents to teach or tutor children when they can; others said nope, kids should do their own work now because they’ll have to later; others said most homework seems like meaningless busy work anyway, so what’s the point?

Most agreed, though, that parents sitting side-by-side with older students for hours on end – the child struggling to understand basic concepts or to decipher an assignment – could be a sign of some larger issue. At the very least, it should prompt a call or e-mail to the teacher.

Homework, regardless of the amount, should be based on what is covered in class. It should be meaningful. It should be relevant.

And it should be the student’s to complete.

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.