Monday, October 3, 2011

Taking Kids' Unhappiness Seriously

From The Homework Myth, by Alfie Kohn:

When our kids complain about constant, compulsory homework, some of us respond with compassion:  "Honey, I know you don't like it, but ..."  What follows that "but" is either an effort to defend the homework or an assertion of its inevitability (which suggests we're unable to defend it.)  We try to be understanding, but our message is clear:  How the child experiences the assignment ultimately doesn't matter.  "My son cries about homework every other day, and I have to tell him he has to do it", says the mother of an eight-year-old.  Other adults, meanwhile, are unsympathetic, confident that children's concerns can safely be ignored.  

... The first thing that strikes me about these two reactions, the gentle and the harsh, is that they differ in tone but not really in substance.  In the final analysis, both fail to take children's unhappiness seriously and both are therefore disrespectful.  Even more important, if we fail to appreciate the significance of children's reactions, how those reactions color the way they think about learning and about themselves, we're not just beign rude.  We're being foolish ... people of any age are less likely to derive value from doing what they experience as unpleasant or simply worthless.

From an Anonymous comment on Spelling Word Extension Activities:

While I sympathize with the fact that a lot of homework is busywork and parents might find it pointless, I fail to see how the difficulty of getting your child to do her work should be a factor in the teacher's decision as to whether or not to assign said work.

I see this argument crop up a lot amongst parents. "It takes forever just to wrangle my child into doing homework, and it eats up so much time in the evenings!!" This is usually paired with "the work is easy mind numbing busy work". So, if both of those things are true, it seems the problem is not that your child is having difficulty understanding the work, she just doesn't want to do it.

I don't want to do a lot of things- reports at work, cleaning my toilets, memorizing theorems for geometry, etc. etc.- but just not wanting to do them is not excuse enough for me not to do them. If you have such an issue getting your child to do her own homework when it is a simple spelling exercise that it seems she understands how to do perfectly well, it doesn't seem that is the fault of the teacher.

I agree with Alfie Kohn on this one. We need to take our children's unhappiness seriously. It's not trivial or irrelevant or a less worthy argument to point out that my kids avoid homework at all costs, and it's a headache to get them to do it. It's a central part of the problem. If my kids actually liked their homework, I would never have started campaigning against it.

If we're going to make our kids do something they don't want to do, we'd better have a compelling reason. If we're going to make every weekday night stressful and unpleasant for our families, it should only be because we have no other choice.

The vast majority of the homework my kids have been assigned is pointless, tedious, unnecessary busywork. It's not worth the unhappiness it causes.


  1. I'm not clear of the message of this post. Are you trying to say that homework should be meaningful? Or that kids shouldn't be doing homework at all?

    I also think you're making a huge emotional leap here to say that homework is a cause of unhappiness. Homework is the cause of kids having to do something they don't want to do - that's a few minutes (or if they're in high school, hours perhaps) of unpleasantness, not unhappiness. Unhappiness IS something to be taken seriously. But homework as the cause? That's a stretch.

  2. TeachHer, you begin to raise a good question. Although FedUpMom's message is quite clear to me. But that's because I've been following and enjoying her for so long.

    Where you fall down is assuming "that's a few minutes..." A few minutes? Really? The only time my daughter ever had what could even be wildly described as "a few minutes" was in kindergarten and that was optional. We happily opted right out of it. We kept the show and tell because she loved that and spent hours preparing for it. Of her own volition, of course. If my child is in that magical state of flow, all cylinders clicking, creativity and imagination humming, I don't put a stop to it. She actually started out loving homework. Until well meaning but clueless teachers found inventive ways for her to begin to hate it.

    A few minutes? You think I would have devoted that many essays on for "a few minutes?"

    Again, not trying to be snarky here. But teachers, if you are going to make a case, please be accurate. My daughter was doing three hours in third grade. THREE HOURS! They must have thought it was an hour per grade rule, not ten minutes. As if the "ten minute" rule isn't just some arbitrary nonsense. But I can live with ten minutes.

    "(or if they're in high school, hours perhaps..." Okay, now we're talking.

    "of unpleasantness, not unhappiness." Keep going. Try sleep insomnia, suicidal ideation, cutting, anorexia. Yep, that's what we hear from high achieving schools in major metropolitan school systems. Don't take my word for it. Call around the nation and ask to speak to some adolescent experts.

  3. @Homework Blues - Certainly, three hours of homework for an elementary school student is out of line. I find it hard to believe that most people would disagree with that. But also consider that part of the problem here is structural. In an era of standardized testing - which many teachers vehemently disagree with - many teachers are facing the reality that they only have so much time in class and need to make up the gap elsewhere. I'm not saying that's right, I'm just saying that your anger is misdirected.

    I still take issue with the idea that lots of homework CAUSES the serious psychological maladies you've brought up here. I have no doubt that there's a CORRELATION, but I would wager that those more serious psychological symptoms are caused by the intense overall pressure of the school system in general, and the competition that goes on between students in those types of schools. Incidentally, these are also the schools that assign a lot of homework. But that doesn't mean that the homework is CAUSING the psychological distress, just that the two variables (homework and psychological pathologies) occur together.

  4. TeacHer, I assure you that homework does indeed cause unhappiness in children, and it doesn't have to be hours either.

    What happens is you get a young child (homework is now routinely assigned starting in kindergarten) who comes home exhausted at the end of the school day. Mom feels that it's her duty to make the child do her homework, because otherwise the teacher will think she's a bad Mom. So she gets tense and worked up about making the kid do the homework. The kid winds up sobbing her heart out, feeling that she's been betrayed by her own mother.

    How do I know this? It happened in my house before I wised up and told the teacher my daughter was too young to do homework.

    You've heard kids say they hate homework, right? They're not just whistling Dixie. They mean it.

  5. So, it seems like there's two issues at play here: the age at which homework is appropriate and how to handle a child who doesn't want to do homework. I won't pretend I know anything about the former. I'm a high school teacher, so the age at which homework becomes developmentally appropriate is beyond my field of expertise.

    As for the second, I believe what I tell my students: you don't have to do anything except accept responsibility for the choices that you make. I don't harp on kids who don't do their homework (and at the point that they're in high school I certainly don't expect their parents to be responsible for homework habits; at some point, kids need to be responsible for themselves) I just give zeros. They don't have to do the homework, but they do have to accept the consequence for what happens when they don't.

    It's your imperative as a parent to do what you think is right for your kids and your family, and teaching your kids to do the same valuable. Just understand that the teacher can't treat your child differently because you asked her to - and that not all parents share your views about homework. Lots of parents (many, MANY) ask me why I don't assign homework every night - many believe that a reasonable amount of homework is essential to the learning process (I agree). So as the teacher I can't please everyone and must err on the side of what I think is right for the level and content that I'm teaching - which may mean some kids end up with a zero. Again, nothing to harp about. Just the reality of trying to serve the needs of a diverse audience with a diverse set of beliefs.

    Just something to chew on. This is the most lively debate about homework I've had since I was in school!

  6. Suburban Chicken FarmerOctober 3, 2011 at 4:31 PM

    Somewhat off topic, I think TeacHer might be interested in my son's homework this month-

    Thirty-eight pages of math, must show all work, some are designed for scantron grading.

    Three summaries of story excerpts (one is from "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.")

    A book report- He's doing it on "The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn."
    A parent signed daily reading log, thirty minutes per day required. (Already sent back a signed form stating I had received and read the log requirements)

    Some science passages and worksheets- I don't recall right now how many- around four to six, I think.

    A science project and experiment entry into school science fair- (required) He's going to do the electrical properties of a potato.

    My son is 11, in sixth grade, in "regular ed." My kids go to a year round school. This is his "Off Track Packet."

  7. SCF, what's the meaning of "Off Track Packet"? Is there an "On Track Packet"? I don't get it.

  8. Suburban Chicken FarmerOctober 3, 2011 at 5:47 PM

    Sorry, I should have explained. The kids go to school for three months and have one month off. They started this, gosh, I'm not even sure how long ago now, a dozen? twenty years ago? around here (San Bernardino California)- The idea was that they would be able to manage a higher student population, since with four tracks of students, three would be attending school while one would be off track.
    My 11 year old was on track "D" last year in fifth, as was his little brother in second - the school's sixth grade is on track "A".. so my son got four days off around 4th of July for the entire summer. It looks like he'll get that time back around the end of year.
    Also now since one is on track (in school) and one is off track (vacation), there's no planning any family vacation whatsoever... except for a few official holidays.

    And every student, including Kinders gets an off track packet, which is a month of worksheets etc. at about three or four hours per day to do correctly.

    Think I'm exaggerating? Google "Off Track Packet" You'll see some teacher cover letters and instructions.

  9. Wow, that stinks. So the kids never really get a vacation?

  10. I had never heard of "Off Track Packets". I'm with FedUpMom- how sad those kids never get a vacation!

  11. I find this a very hard, thorny issue. I used to be a total devotee of Alfie Kohn. I homeschooled my son so he could learn to read at his own speed. The first year, I trusted unschooling types who said that he would get interested in learning to read when he was ready. I didn't push him. If learning phonics made him unhappy, we stopped. I respected him so very much. The second year, as he became more and more depressed and bored and resistant to learning anything, I began to understand that that hadn't been a good plan for him. I made him spend a couple hours a week with a Wilson tutor. Then he started at a private school that drills kids with learning disabilities relentlessly in this stuff so they can catch up.

    I complained about how miserable he was to the therapist we were consulting. Her response was "if your son had cerebral palsy, he would have to do difficult, painful work with a physical therapist every day." She said of course I wouldn't be able to make him do it, and I would find it very painful to watch. But he would still need to do it. Sometimes learning important things really is that hard, but children still need to do it.

    So I have become skeptical of Kohn's Montessoriesque philosophy that if the work doesn't come from intrinsic motivation, it's worthless. Lots of things can interfere with intrinsic motivation, including fear, and sometimes mastery of skills helps a child develop more self confidence and eventually motivation.

    On the other hand, there are all kinds of problems with homework nevertheless. It's usually one size fits all, so half the class is doing work that's too easy for them just because if they didn't their grades would fall, regardless of how well they test (as per TeacHer). The other half of the class is made miserable by hours of desperately difficult work they aren't ready for. (Maybe it's more like thirds and there is a third that the work is appropriate for, but still...)

    And all this homework interferes with the other enriching activities kids could be doing, including those most important activities of all, sleeping and daydreaming, which many studies have shown are necessary for really learning.

    There was a good piece in the NYT about homework:

    (Sorry I'm so lame about links.)

  12. Rosemary, I too have very mixed feelings about Alfie Kohn, for various reasons, including the ones you bring up. I also have a child who is struggling to read, and it will be a chore for her until she reaches some fluency. We are working her through phonics whether she likes it or not.

    However, I think Kohn is on the money in his discussion of homework, and in his basic point that the feelings of kids should not be trivialized or swept under the rug. Sometimes it may be necessary to do something our kids don't like, but this should never be taken lightly.

    Back to "On Track" and "Off Track" -- how do working parents manage childcare? This sounds incredibly difficult, especially if you have multiple young children, each on a completely different schedule.

  13. Suburban Chicken FarmerOctober 3, 2011 at 11:04 PM

    FedUpMom asks: "So the kids never really get a vacation?"

    It's definitely a huge break from school for my kids. At school, they line up for everything; they silently walk in line with their hands clasped behind their backs, have silent lunch; live and learn by the ever-present clock; they're under constant scrutiny - from fellow students (who could even be actual enemies on the street) and of course from school staff.

    "how do working parents manage childcare?"
    I don't know that year round is any more difficult to manage than traditional. I also don't know all the different ways people manage. I know a lot of families in my neighborhood are bigger than ours and seem to have adults coming and going constantly throughout the day.
    In our family- My 11 year old is "in charge" when both my husband and I are working away from the house. It's about half a swing shift, four to five hours in the evening. So the school's schedule has neither helped nor hindered us.

    Now, I do know they also have an before-school and after-school program called CAPS which my neighbors son attended last year as she and her husband were working. The program offered homework time and other activities and ran til 6pm. Well, once in awhile her husband would get home early and wanted to get their son, but that was against the rules. Either you're in CAPS or you're not- no early dismissal permitted. And usually her son didn't do his homework during CAPS so she, the mom, after working at the bank for nine hours, came home, after cooking and serving dinner, then had to sit down with her son, who also put in 9 hours at school that day and do homework with him. Her bank went down the tubes so she's now unemployed- so the bright side is- she has time to do homework.

  14. @SCF - what you've described sounds like a prison. How can people treat children that way?

  15. @SCF, my question about childcare was more about the one month off. What do you do when your younger child has a month off, on a different schedule than your older child? Sounds like a logistical headache, even if you have a parent at home.

    At least in a system like ours, where all kids get the summers off, there's all kinds of summer programs that spring up that you can send your kid to. But if the kids all get different months off, I can't even see how you could start such a business.

  16. Suburban Chicken FarmerOctober 4, 2011 at 2:26 PM

    Mathew, yeah, dozens upon dozens of times I've seen these kids lined up, walking single-file with hands behind their backs and every single time the ensuing image in my head of shackles on their ankles, or a chain gang.
    How can people treat children this way? Ya know, the road to perdition is a Skinner Box with good intentions.

    Chris over at "A Blog About School" has been blogging about PBIS-
    And having a good argument about research on long term negative effects of token economies on motivation.
    Well, another component of this behaviorist method is to avoid the need to punish by having procedures in place. They so easily justify the procedures-
    Question: Why must kids line up for every activity?
    Answer: That way the teacher always knows where all of her students are (safety.) In the past, some children ran on sidewalks or acted wild. (safety, calm climate)
    Question: Why must the kids be silent in line?
    Answer: There might be testing going on in near by classrooms.
    Question: Couldn't the children talk quietly in that case?
    Answer: In the past, some have gotten too loud.
    Question: Why must the kids walk with hands behind their backs?
    Answer: Some kids don't keep their hands to themselves- there's no time to deal with individual petty problems so the procedure solves all that.

    Damn straight, it's a pedagogy of poverty.
    From Mark Haberman article:
    "The pedagogy of poverty appeals to several constituencies:

    It appeals to those who themselves did not do well in schools. People who have been brutalized are usually not rich sources of compassion. And those who have failed or done poorly in school do not typically take personal responsibility for that failure. They generally find it easier to believe that they would have succeeded if only somebody had forced them to learn.

    It appeals to those who rely on common sense rather than on thoughtful analysis. It is easy to criticize humane and developmental teaching aimed at educating a free people as mere "permissiveness," and it is well known that "permissiveness" is the root cause of our nation's educational problems.

    It appeals to those who fear minorities and the poor. Bigots typically become obsessed with the need for control.

    It appeals to those who have low expectations for minorities and the poor. People with limited vision frequently see value in limited and limiting forms of pedagogy. They believe that at-risk students are served best by a directive, controlling pedagogy.

    It appeals to those who do not know the full range of pedagogical options available. This group includes most school administrators, most business and political reformers, and many teachers."

  17. Suburban Chicken FarmerOctober 4, 2011 at 2:42 PM

    Let me restate this for Chris from A Blog About School - PBIS is about having and maintaining control over kids through codifying procedures along with giving out tickets. Think about that award/reward ceremony recently discussed on your blog. The kids who got tickets put their tickets into a lottery drawing- Now imagine your family Christmas morning, drawing a name out of the hat to see who gets a present.
    I imagine even the "winner" would feel like shit.

  18. Suburban Chicken FarmerOctober 4, 2011 at 3:03 PM

    Oops, looks like one of my posts in this blog is caught in the filter.

    FedUpMom, actually I think there are groups offering activities throughout the year here.. dance class,, etc..
    Also, I do know a nearby school did have, a few years ago, a CAPS program for kids who were off track.

    I think all of the schools are moving to what's called a "Modified Traditional" school year.. It starts earlier in the year. Ya know, gotta pack as many days in as possible before state standardized tests in the Spring.

  19. Take a look at Steve Jobs. Did his teachers love him? I don't know. But I doubt he was the kid who did his homework every night. We get teachers who come on here and stophomework and preach compliance, dutifulness, meekness. Do what you're told.

    That is not how visionaries are made. That is not how they are born. Let us not take the rare kid who has a vision and do everything in our power to stamp out that creativity, that innovation, that fire.

    Let's ban reading logs. Let's ban the twenty minute reading rule. We hear too often that potentially great readers start asking to be timed, so that they can be dutiful and stop reading when the twenty minute timer goes off.

    Let Steve Jobs be a lesson to us all. Not every child will grow up to be a visionary. But let's not kill the ones who are even before they are out of the gate.

    Let Steve Jobs be a lesson to us all. In every child, there is a flicker, a hope. Let us not extinguish that. Children are our greatest asset. They are our future.

    If you are burned out or angry or have an ax to grind, get out. Our children deserve nothing less.

  20. I think Kohn makes some good points in his book, but I don't agree with everything he says.

    I definitely agree that teachers should really think about the kind of homework they are sending home. If it is a premade worksheet, does it actually make kids have come home with more than one worksheet that has mistakes in it...very confusing for the kids.

    However, a lot of people who read Kohn's book seem to come away with the message that homework is never beneficial, and I disagree. Some kids do need extra time to practice a skill. My older child needed much more practice with math than what was assigned in the math curriculum at that time.

    There is section in the book where Kohn contradicts himself about homework. He states that if homework is assigned, that some kids won't do it, and the kids that will do it will leap ahead. He also states that families who are more well educated can help their kids in a different way with homework than kids who have parents who are less willing or able to help with homework. He gave these as reasons why homework shouldn't be assigned, and that bothered me.

  21. KD, I agree that there's a contradiction. If middle-class kids get an advantage from doing homework, shouldn't everybody do it?

    I would like to see homework start much later in a child's life (middle school?) and be very carefully considered. It should be assigned only when necessary (not because the teacher is supposed to assign a certain number of minutes every night). It should be flexible -- parents should have the absolute right to opt out for their kids, without argument. Kids who need more practice can do more, and kids who need less practice can do less.