Is There Life After Homework?

Jul 3, 2006

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, Vol. 3, Issue 2, 1989, pp. 29-30. Appears here with permission.
Abba, you must help me with my homework tonight!” No words fill me with greater terror than those seemingly innocent ones spoken by my thirteen year old at ten o’clock in the evening. Why, I wonder, does she need help at this hour? The answer is obvious – I have not been available any earlier in the evening. But the explanation does little to still the hammering in my heart.
I know that I will shortly be faced with the same dilemma that confronts me every time we embark on this ritual. She will ask me for the answer to the math she is working on, or the correct spelling of some arcane word in the English language, or the name of the sixth president of the United States. Or maybe this time she will want me to translate the pasuk in Chumash with which she is struggling, or provide her with the correct suffix for the third person, singular, feminine form of a Hebrew verb in her targillon. And I will wonder yet again whether I should force her to embark on the painstaking pathway which will ultimately help her derive the solution by herself or just provide her with the answer she craves.
As I contemplate the upcoming struggle with my daughter, I find myself reflecting about the functions that parents play in the educational process today. There are three responsibilities that appear to have been assigned to us by modern educators. We are expected to serve as policemen, as teachers’ aides, and even occasionally as partners with our children in their homework assignments. And I am not entirely comfortable with any of these functions.
The role of policeman is the most common, and the most established, of these three parental responsibilities. When my children tell me that they cannot go to school the next day unless I have signed their homework, thereby guaranteeing that the work has been completed, I cannot avoid the conclusion that parents have become the executive arm of the educational process, responsible for enforcing academic discipline. To be sure, parents should help their children develop good study habits and make sure that they do not neglect their assignments. But I am not at all certain that parents can, or should, function as policemen.
Consider, for example, the dilemma I face at ten o’clock in the evening. Perhaps my daughter has failed to use her time efficiently and complete her homework earlier in the evening. But I cannot reasonably fault her for seeking some respite from academic tensions after a school day that can often last as long as twelve hours. In any event, I know that her attention span is likely to be severely limited at ten o’clock. Moreover, as a parent, I know the importance of a good night’s sleep, particularly at the end of a long, yeshiva school day. I am not always convinced that I should be enforcing academic discipline at this hour, and I may not choose to quarrel with my child over her homework.
The role of teacher’s aide requires parents to reinforce, and occasionally supplement, the education that takes place in the classroom. Educators may not always acknowledge that they have assigned this responsibility to us, but when a child brings home an assignment that he or she does not understand, it is clear that parents are expected to fill in the educational gaps. Perhaps this role is justified if the child has simply failed to pay attention in class that day. But it is not always clear that the material has been adequately covered in the classroom that day or that the assignment itself was adequately explained. Parents may well object to serving as teachers’ aides, particularly after a long day at work, and we resent the implication that we are falling to carry out our part in the educational process.
Finally, many of the assignments my children have brought home over the past few years have been designed for their parents rather than for them. A seventh grade Science Fair, for example, might provide a reasonable opportunity for gifted children to demonstrate their understanding of the scientific method, but the task is usually far too complicated for children of that age. Too often, the onus of preparing the project devolves upon the parents, who cannot bear to see their children embarrassed in front of their peers. It is difficult to see what our children gain from this experience. I do not believe that teachers should assign homework that requires parents to become partners with the children, and it is easy to resent the role that modern educators have thrust upon us.
As I think about parental involvement in homework assignments, I cannot help but wonder about the very purpose of homework. When I ask my children about it, they tell me that their homework assignments help them master new materials they learned in school that day. Homework gives them the feeling, they say, that they understand the text or the underlying principles they discussed in the classroom. But this response is what my children believe I want to hear from them. When I ask them what they really think about it, they tell me that “homework causes brain death.” I wonder whether or not both observations are correct.
For yeshiva students, homework is often a burden that must be overcome in order to proceed with their lives. No matter how creative and challenging the assignment, it is difficult to do justice to it when there is little free time. Unlike their counterparts in public school who have time for both extracurricular activities and homework, yeshiva students rarely home before the evening hours and have little time for either leisure activities or creative homework assignments. Public school children often need homework assignments at least in part because they do not spend enough time in the classroom. That is certainly not true for yeshiva students. And it is little consolation to our children when we tell them that higher education will be a snap if they can only survive high school.
As a parent, I can only hope that our teachers will come to appreciate both the dilemma of parents who have been reluctantly thrust into the midst of the great homework battle, and the problems of yeshiva students who have too little time to do too much work. Homework certainly has a role in the educational process, but please don’t take it that seriously. From the perspective of parents, it is not always worth exacerbating the often fragile relationships with our children, and homework is, after all, only one tool that can be used in educating them.
There really is life after homework!
DR. MILCH is a Marketing Research Consultant, a former educator, and a parent of two daughters in Yeshivot. He is the author of two books and many articles and has taught on the collegiate level.