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November 19, 2013

Ask the Expert: Homework… You can’t make me!

Image: Flickr/Alex

Image: Flickr/Alex

Question:  I have a 6th grade son who is in gifted classes, and recently he has decided that he doesn’t want to do the work. In fact, he told me, “I don’t want to be in the gifted class; I don’t want to do the work, and you can’t make me.” He’s smart, and he’s driving me crazy! Help!!

Response:  First of all, let me say that I feel my own blood pressure rising just thinking about this scenario, so I can sympathize that this is one of those situations in which you want to intervene and intervene swiftly and victoriously! After all, who likes seeing good talent wasted?
Yet, even though I agree that you are justified in feeling frustrated, the first and most important thing you can do is calm yourself and your own anxiety about him doing poorly or failing, and here’s why:
  1. The more you push on this issue, the more likely he will resist, and his resistance will probably come in the form of slacking off even more. He’ll see how passionate you are about his homework and decide that he doesn’t need to be passionate at all, OR he’ll see this as an opportunity to exert some control over his own life. He’ll see it as a power struggle and the more you pull, the harder he will pull in the opposite direction. As you back off, you allow him to take responsibility for his own actions and focus on his own desires rather than concern himself with what you think/feel about it.
  2. This is the time to let him fail.  Now I know that this statement is anxiety producing, but let me explain. From a purely academic perspective, his grades don’t really count yet. When he enters high school, his grades have an impact on his ability to get into the college of his choice, but right now, they don’t. So if there’s a time for him to experience the consequences of bad choices with the least long term effect, now would be that time.
  3. Let the consequences do the screaming.  This principle says it all—let the consequences do the screaming. Once you’ve calmed yourself, it’s important to think through what would be an appropriate consequence for failing to do homework.  This is best done before you actually need to implement it—not in the heat of the moment. And it can even be presented before it becomes necessary. For instance, “You can watch TV after your homework is done.” Do you notice how non confrontational that sounds? Very different from, “You can’t watch any TV unless your homework is done.” A slight change, but the tone is more positive, it invites less resistance, and even sounds like a reward.  One more comment on consequences…sometimes it’s tempting to pile on consequences, especially when your child starts to dig in his heels. Unfortunately that tends to backfire, so if you see yourself taking away every privilege and good thing in your child’s life, slow down. Take a pause. Mentally switch places with your child and ask yourself what it’s like from his position. Then have a talk with him, a respectful, not dogmatic talk. Maybe you’ll discover he really doesn’t like Language Arts or he doesn’t get along with his teacher or he’s distracted by a girl in his class.

Middle school, as you know and probably remember from your own experience, is a time of transition—good transitions and painful ones. The more you can seek to develop your relationship with your son, the better you will both be able to tackle these challenges. Enjoy him. Find ways to balance the business side of parenting (supervising homework, dishing out consequences, managing the home schedule) with the nurturing/fun side of parenting. Give him opportunities to make more of his own decisions. So many kids at this age are seeking to expand their influence and wanting to manage more of their own lives. Give him those opportunities and as you do so, encourage him, praising his efforts.

And if none of these ideas help, just do his homework for him.
(You know I’m kidding, right?)


2 thoughts on “Ask the Expert: Homework… You can’t make me!

  1. Reading this HIT the spot. It is frustrating to see myself so worried about the outcome of him not completing his homework while he shows a careless attitude towards the same situation. That’s why I had to recollect my feelings and give him back the responsibility of experiencing the consequences of his own actions/decisions. Since he is so into participating in sports, that is my current tool to hold him responsible for completing his homework. It has worked for now, I’ll see what else to do once the season is over.

  2. Terrific advice. I have a gifted son in 6th grade so this really hit home. This IS the time to let them fail if they are going to. I think that is consequence itself and will probably drive them in a direction to succeed without us even having to intervene.

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