Helping the Homework Hater

Mom-in-Chief Jamie Woolf

Seven Leadership Tactics from the Workplace Help Busy Moms Ease Homework Struggles


Strategy 1: Change your perspective. Imagine what it would be like if your boss approached every assignment with sighs, eye-rolls, and a constant barrage of negativity. You wouldn’t feel very inspired to do your best work, would you? Of course not! Well, the same principle applies to homework. If you’re unconsciously conveying how much you hate the daily mountain of dreary, difficult homework, your child is hardly going to be enthusiastic about it either. 

“No matter what your personal views may be, frame homework in a positive light,” says Woolf. “When you see the value in something, chances are good your kids will too. They’ll be much more likely to cooperate.” 

Strategy 2: Enlist your child in setting big picture goals. Exemplary business leaders know that when we don’t set goals, we’re susceptible to veering off course and experiencing costly setbacks. So, why is goal-setting so important for business leaders and parents alike? Because, says Woolf, the very act of articulating a goal and committing to it focuses our attention on the bigger meaning and inspires us to not lose motivation over those niggling details. 

“Ask your child, ‘If you started your homework each night without nagging and did your best work, what would you be doing differently?'” advises Woolf. Then encourage your child to come up with two to three new and measurable behaviors to commit to. Have her write them on a big sheet of paper and hang it up in her room. For example: I will do my homework after dinner without being asked or I will not turn on the TV until all my homework is completed. Each day go back to the poster and keep a record with stickers or tally marks that monitor how many days she follows through on her new agreements. Celebrate even the smallest successes and signs of effort. 

Strategy 3: Adopt the right coaching strategy. Good leaders know when to step in to help and when to allow a person to struggle independently so she gains self-confidence. A question every parent should ask when her child struggles with homework is Does my child lack the skills to get the job done or is the problem that he doesn’t want to do the task? In other words, is the problem a motivational one or is the resistance related to ability (he doesn’t understand the math problems)? Once you diagnose the problem, you will provide the right kind of help, just as good managers do with marginal performers. 

If your child is both unmotivated and doesn’t understand fractions (let’s hope you do!), it’s time to get in there and provide some hands-on assistance. Explain the concepts, provide help, and gradually let her try it herself, resisting the urge to complete the problems for her. On the other hand, let’s say your son is perfectly capable of doing his essay but would rather write messages to friends on MySpace. In this case, it’s time to foster responsibility. Go back to the big picture goals (Strategy #2), resist nagging, and set firm limits and consequences if he breaks his agreements. 

Strategy 4: Encourage neatness and organization. Have you ever noticed that the most productive employees are the ones who make an effort to keep their offices at least fairly neat and organized? No one can do her best work amid chaos. That’s why you should help your child create a little “home office nook” all to herself. You don’t have to set up a desk, especially for younger children. Instead try a bean bag chair or a big cushy floor pillow. Set up a lamp and keep pencils, paper, and a calculator nearby–and hold her accountable for keeping everything in its place. 

“When your child has an area she routinely uses for studying and homework, she becomes accustomed to switching into student mode when she is there,” says Woolf. “It is another good way to help develop a daily homework routine. And it teaches her how to stay organized–which is a skill that will serve her well throughout life.” 

Strategy 5: Teach accountability. Workplaces are filled with people who point fingers and find excuses instead of assuming full responsibility. Kids, also, are experts at diverting responsibility. What parent hasn’t heard, “It’s not my fault,” or “The teacher didn’t explain the homework,” or “I’m just horrible at math”? 

When you hear these excuses, you can say, “What can you do to influence the situation?” or “What might you do differently next time to avoid this problem?” These questions don’t let your child off the hook. They encourage him to assume responsibility and focus attention on the aspects of the situation he can control, an essential life skill. 

Strategy 6: Don’t give up when bad habits return. Let’s say you’ve made good progress for a few days but the novelty has worn off and now your child is back to his old, resistant ways. Your patience may be paper-thin, but hold off on losing your cool or labeling your child a poor student. The best thing you can do is to refocus on the big picture goal and calmly remind your child that he needs to follow through on his commitments. No yelling, no power struggles, no throwing up your hands and saying, “My kid’s a slacker.” Simply restate your agreement: No TV, no computer, until the homework commitments are completed. 

Help get him started by dividing the work into smaller, more manageable parts. Once again, go back to Strategy #3 and diagnose if you’re dealing with a motivational problem, or if the obstacle is related to a lack of understanding. When your child completes his homework, give praise for his effort. 

Strategy 7: Connect success with effort. Those who have been told how intelligent they are can give up when things get too hard. Children would rather keep their “smart kid” label than put in a lot of effort and possibly fail. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, maintains that although parents and teachers have long believed they could build kids’ confidence by praising their abilities, in actuality the opposite is true. 

“Instead of saying, ‘C’mon, you can do it. You’re so smart,’ remind your child how she succeeded in the past,” advises Woolf “Say, ‘I remember how you wrote out your spelling words over and over and then you did well on your test,’ or ‘You worked for days on your geography report and remember how well it turned out?’ The message is that effort and perseverance, not innate talent, lead to success.” 


from “Mom-in-Chief: How Wisdom from the Workplace Can Save Your Family from Chaos” by Jamie Woolf

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