Parenting Adolescents and the Doing of Homework

When teachers send school assignments home, what are parents to do?

Posted Aug 19, 2019

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

Back to school changes life for everyone in the family in many ways. Consider one: homework starts again.

As in many aspects of parenting adolescents, there is a wide variety of opinions about the value and management of teenage homework. Maybe the following can help sort out where a mother or father might want to stand.

For some parents, doing homework comes with the adolescent responsibility of going to school: teachers give homework to supplement classroom instruction.

For other parents, homework is an intrusion by teachers into family life, creating educational demands that now must be managed at home.

In general, I think homework belabors all concerned – a nightly school assignment for the teenager to do at home, a nightly task that parents must often supervise to completion, returned assignments that teachers must now check and grade, creating more paperwork to do. Homework creates a burden on everyone.

In most public and private cases, we have a homework-based system of education in this country. While only a single grade level teacher gave homework in elementary school; in secondary school, multiple subject area teachers each give assignments so there is now more homework for the student.

If homework is nothing but a burden, why give it? One answer is because it can confer significant benefits. There is the chance for the teenager to practice academic skills, work on time-extended projects, and acquire further knowledge. For the young person who is able to make themselves do assignments that often feel unwelcome, there is also developing the self-discipline and work ethic to get them done. At best, homework can educationally engage the teenager after school and strengthen what they learn.

By the beginning of secondary school, homework counts academically. For example, a very common component in the “early adolescent achievement drop” (see March 15, 2009  blog entry) so common in middle school, when failing effort results in falling achievement, is ignoring homework. Now zeroes from incomplete assignments can lower one’s grade.  

One cause for this failing effort is how homework can fly in the face of the early adolescent work ethic that often seems to be escaping from as much work as possible. And if you still can’t escape, at least get it over with quickly rather than do it well. Come the more resistant and socially focused early adolescent years, academic performance can become less of a personal priority than in childhood, as freedom and friends matter more.  

So, particularly during middle school, conscientious parents can go through a contentious time with their adolescent over:

  • whether there really is homework 
  • whether the assignments and necessary materials have been brought home 
  •  whether the homework has actually been adequately done or done at all 
  • and whether completed homework ever actually got turned in 

On all four counts, parental pursuit can make a positive educational difference for now and later.

For the sake of their daughter or son maintaining academic operating capacity during a more distracted and disaffected time, their supervisory support is often needed. To simply let the young person suffer the failing consequences of faltering efforts may not be responsible parenting. At this age, it is easy for the disaffected young person to discount school performance (“getting by is good enough”) and become content doing their least, not their best. Now future educational options can be unmindfully diminished.

What can frustrate parents trying to supervise homework to completion can be the young person’s seemingly infinite capacity for distraction and procrastination that can turn a thirty-minute assignment into a stressful three-hour supervisory ordeal. In this situation, parents may feel ungrateful to the school. “We end up having to help finish what the teacher started!”

Then there is the larger question some parents reasonably ask: “With all this homework to do, what about my teenager’s need for downtime to relax, for family time and responsibilities, for time pursuing other interests, and for time just for play?” So: now the question can become: “What is homework enough?” 

I don’t know. Maybe decide something like this: In middle school and high school, anticipate around a couple of hours of concentrated time spent on homework on school nights and weekends. Be firm in your expectations that homework is thoroughly done; stay empathetic with the adolescent’s natural intolerance of schoolwork at home; and be sure to appreciate the young person’s self-discipline in getting it done.

When school starts assigning students homework, then parents usually find that they have more homework to do too.

Next week’s entry: When a Middle School Best Friendship ("BFF") Falls Apart