The Homework Wars
She felt the inverse effects of that paradigm one night last year, when her 12-year-old son—a strong student who won a national writing competition—came to her in tears after staying up until 10:30 p.m. for the third night in one week. He’d been doing homework straight through the evening and still wasn’t finished. “He had between three to four hours of work every evening regularly,” she says. “He’s a perfectionist, and the pressure was killing him. Every morning he would wake up and say to me, ‘Mom, I hate school.’ When you’ve got kids who excel academically who are saying that, there’s a real problem.”
When she and her husband brought it to the attention of her son’s teachers, Jacobs says that the teachers bristled, declaring that assigning homework to keep kids from playing video games was simply part of their job.
Some parents, however, say the demand for these excessive assignments starts in the home, not the school. “A lot of time it’s the parents who want the homework more than the teachers,” says Vanessa Allen, a Newton mom of Toby, age 10, and Gigi, 12. She remembers feeling “highly annoyed” when Toby was in second grade and was assigned a complex project that included a diorama and a business plan. “It was just way too complicated,” she says. “It was ridiculous.” Allen says that although some parents shared her concerns about the assignment, others were totally fine with it. “The next year in third grade, parents complained that there wasn’t enough homework,” she says. “Those parents can go buy their extra homework from some crazy Russian math institute. Those expectations don’t have to be for everyone.”
Even at my kids’ school, parents seem to be pressuring teachers to pile it on. When I spoke with my daughter’s third-grade teacher about summer-vacation homework, she told me that the reading lists and math projects they hand out to kids at the end of the school year aren’t required by the school at all, but are for the parents who want their kids practicing through June, July, and August.
At the heart of many parents’ concern: Do these assignments promote real learning and critical-thinking skills? “Homework can show you in real time what your kid is able to do, or not able to do,” Allen says. And as anyone who’s taken a language or history class knows, it’s often crucial to memorize things such as pronunciations, conjugations, and eventful dates. “But there’s a lot of busywork,” she says, rather than real learning.
Newton resident and mom Susannah Heschel, an award-winning author and a professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, understands that “some parents find it somehow reassuring that [tons of homework] means their kids will get into an Ivy college one day, and then have a financially successful life. [But] so many of the assignments don’t address important things, such as intellectual curiosity or creative learning.”
So when do our kids get that time to explore? Isn’t that what summer vacation is for?
This past winter, sifting through the camp options for Zach and Cleo, I was faced with two choices: traditional camp (meaning team-building programs focused on the outdoors and physical activities) or any of the hundreds of camps marketed toward “gifted” children. Gifted camps weren’t around when I was a kid, so I went to traditional summer camp—and loved it. But if these academic camps are the new norm, does sending my kids to a regular ol’ camp somehow mean that they are less smart or will be lower achievers in life?
As I dug in and started poring over the options, I was shocked by the intensity of the programs that I found: There are places like the Summer Institute for the Gifted at Boston University Academy, a two-week program for tykes five through 12, where courses include chemistry for five- to six-year-olds, writing or cartography for seven- to eight-year-olds, and prelaw classes that teach “persuasive argumentation skills crucial to success in future professions, both legal and otherwise” to 11- to 12-year-olds. Zach’s into computer coding. So should I send him to a camp at Harvard in July to study Java programming for two weeks? Within a year for Zach and three years for Cleo, they’ll be old enough to go to the Lumos Debate Summer Institute at Andover Newton Theological Institute, a two-week debate camp where sixth graders can practice case-writing, cross-examinations, and rebuttals. (As if I need to empower my kids to argue with me more? Let alone teach them how to actually win?)
What the hell ever happened to camps where kids mastered swimming, played baseball, danced, caught fireflies, and learned how to make and manage friendships? They’re still out there; they’re just not as desirable to many parents, who enjoy the sound of the term “camp for gifted children” as it rolls off their tongue. On one hand, I understand the point that several friends and fellow parents made when they told me about the benefits of gifted kids spending time with one another over their summer break. As the National Association for Gifted Children argues, kids who during the school year are enrolled in “regular education classrooms may have learning needs that teachers are unable to address during the regular school year.”
But what about the value of kids using their summer free time to explore other parts of themselves that may not be academic or career-driven—at, you know, the ripe old age of nine or 10?
It all reminds me of something I promised myself in my early twenties, two decades ago, while living in France. It was the first time I’d been in a culture that put a premium on leisure and family time. There, all adults are entitled to (and take) up to nine weeks’ vacation with family every year. Workaholism isn’t valued, a high standard of living is—and that includes the freedom to focus on relationships and creativity, and actually enjoy life. After experiencing that, I’d made the decision that if I ever had children, I’d never put the American get-ahead mentality above raising kids who learned to be happy human beings. Dartmouth College’s Heschel agrees, and believes that summer vacation is essential to nurturing children. “We can’t just make them into little machines that sit there in a cubicle and turn out to be so separate from everyone else around them that they can barely relate,” she says.
Somehow, in the intervening years, I’d let my vision of the kind of family I’d wanted fall by the wayside. Now I was confronting a choice: Would I rather have my kids learn to excel, or learn to take a break and love learning for its own sake?
If the latter is my goal, Zach assures me that, for him, homework is backfiring. When I ask him why he hates it so much, he doesn’t miss a beat: “Because I know I just have to get it done, so I rush through. And I don’t really like doing it or pay attention.”
“Is there anything you like about it at all?” I ask.
Cleo, ever the people-pleaser, pipes up: “Well, I like some homework. I mean, it’s good practice for what we learned that day. But maybe just not as much homework as we have would be really good.”
Zach’s response: “Well, I guess maybe…I would do reading. So maybe if they banned all homework except for reading, yeah.”
What can I say? The kid loves to read. “So if teachers gave you less than an hour of homework, and you could do something from school you loved, you’d be okay with it?”
“Sure,” he says. “Yeah.”
It was that afternoon that I booked both kids into a traditional summer camp—complete with Wiffle ball, arts and crafts, and annoying sing-alongs. A few hours later, I was still imagining how much less stress that camp would create—for Zach and for me. That was when Zach asked me if I’d requested his teacher change his school’s homework policy yet.
“Nope,” I answered. “But I’m glad we’re on the same side now, and we don’t have to fight so much.”
Until puberty, anyway.