Do we need homework?

How do you feel about homework? Is it necessary to reinforce what is being taught at school, or is it a burden whose negatives far outweigh its benefits?

I’ve always been of the philosophy that if homework can be eliminated or reduced, it should be. When I think of how long kids sit in chairs all day, listening to one lecture after another, reading books from various subject areas, and following all of the rules of the school, I don’t blame them one bit for wanting to be truly free when they walk out the door. If it’s been a long time since you sat for 8 hours listening to someone else’s directions, I urge you to try it. You will find that your butt hurts, you’ll look for any excuse to go to the bathroom, and your brain will be fried by the end of the day.

Kids are no different; in fact, they’re worse. They’re meant to be more active, to run around and exhaust themselves physically. But they can’t do that if they’re burdened with 50 math problems, 50 pages of reading, and a science project, all due tomorrow. So I subscribe to the “less is more” theory when it comes to homework. Thankfully, I teach at a school with the same philosophy, so I’m supported in this effort.

I contend that except for when it’s impossible to do the work at school, homework should be kept to a minimum. Let’s free our kids every afternoon and encourage them to explore, exercise, play with their friends, relax with a book of their choice, and spend time with their family. There is WAY more to life than book study.

Think back to your homework days. Did all of that extra work help you? Did it feel like busy work? Did it engage you in the subject or make you want to learn more? And what about your kids now – how do they feel about their homework?


Children who volunteer get so much more than they give

I’ve always been big into community service. I grew up as a Girl Scout, where service was stressed and needed to earn those coveted badges that adorned our uniforms. I went to church, where youth groups did missionary work and volunteered at the local Food Bank. I joined a sorority in college and in between attending parties and chasing frat guys, we even managed to work in our community.

So when I had my own children, it was the natural progression of things to take them out into the community, where they could serve. I remember a Christmas in which we each exchanged one present and then spent the day serving meals to the homeless. I remember taking my kids to work in food pantries, toy drives, and shelters. Those memories are priceless to me, because I know how much my kids gained from participating:

1. Kids learn that their world is very small, that they really are just fleas in the Grand Canyon. How they live and what they experience is minute compared to what the world is dealing with on a daily basis.

2. Children see that everyone does not live like them. Since most of us live in communities with people of the same socioeconomic background, it’s easy for our kids to grow up thinking that everyone’s life is alike. They need to see that many, many kids don’t have what they have and, in fact, can’t imagine living like they do.

3. Gratitude, which is incredibly important in life, grows. Kids suddenly became grateful that they eat heartily every day, that the Christmas tree shadows a huge pile of gifts, and that their closets are filled with clothes.

4. Kids develop a sense of satisfaction from giving to other people. They find out just how good it feels to sacrifice for someone else’s benefit. You know they’re growing and maturing when they begin to put others before themselves.

Did you volunteer as a kid and do you volunteer now? What have been the greatest rewards you’ve experienced?

Sports saturation – is it too much for young kids?

A friend of mine recently posted a question on Facebook: Should we be pushing our kids to play sports at younger ages and at higher levels? Or has the whole thing gotten out of hand? Varying responses came from parents of different backgrounds and philosophies, proving that there doesn’t seem to be a “right” answer to this question. As both a mom and a teacher, I can speak from my own experience and that of thousands of high schoolers.

My son has always been naturally competitive and loves winning as much as the next guy. He started sports young – baseball at 4, soccer at 5, basketball in elementary school. He loved them all, but as his parent, I could see that basketball was just for fun, soccer was a love, and baseball was where he showed his true talent. If I were going to “push” him into one sport, it would be baseball.

Unfortunately, baseball brought trepidation to my boy. He was a pitcher, so he felt the pressure of “all eyes on him.” It was the same way every time he batted. Being a switch hitter didn’t change the fact that if he struck out – left handed or right – he was devastated.

Soccer, on the other hand, was more of a team sport. He could still enjoy his standout moments but blend in when he was having an off-game. So when he turned 11 or so, about the time when everyone insists that kids should choose one sport on which to concentrate, he chose soccer. He made an elite team, and our lives became consumed with shin guards, minor concussions, and sunburn. Every.Single.Weekend. We traveled to tournaments in which he played 8 games in a weekend. We spent a lot of money on a sport that should have been dirt cheap. We had priceless fun and made memories no one can ever take away from us, and I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. But it was all soccer, all the time.

When high school came, our son was burned out. He was tired of soccer. He didn’t want to play anymore. Can you believe it??? Of course you can, because you probably see it with your own children. The problem with starting kids at a young age and pushing and prodding them through, is that by the time they’re 14 years old, they’ve already played their favorite sport for 10 years. They’re over it. Their legs are tired and they’re sick of giving up all of their spare time to run up and down a field.

So, yes, if you want to have strong athletes, start ’em young. But if you want them to feel passion toward the game, you may want to wait a while. More kids drop their beloved sports in high school than continue to play them. Even fewer actually love the game. Many stick it out because their parents expect them to or they are hoping for a college scholarship. But if you ask them if they love it, they shake their heads.

Of course, exceptions exist. The truly talented should always go for it. But for a lot of kids, a strong emphasis on one particular sport and the ensuing commitment that comes with it often lead to burnout. My advice – don’t listen to people who insist that your children should choose one sport on which to focus. Just let your kids have fun, and as in life, the cream will rise to the top.

Sometimes I think it might be healthier to encourage small bites of everything that is offered. That way, your kids won’t get sick from eating too much of something that started off so sweet.

Teach your kids that learning should always trump grades

I am increasingly concerned about the emphasis being placed on letter grades, both by parents and teenagers. I can’t tell you how many times a week a student asks “Does this count?” when I introduce an activity or a parent emails to ask about grades. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised given the weight that grades carry when it comes to college admissions and scholarships. But the idealist in me continues to wish that everyone could re-train their thinking by thinking about their thinking.

One day, a student approached me with the following question: “Dr. D, can you help me with my grade?” I waited for an explanation, and when he stopped there, I prodded, “Do you mean can I help you to improve your grade? Sure, I can certainly do that. What do you need help with?” He fumbled around for a reply and then went on to say that he couldn’t have a D or F in my class, so he needed help. I asked him if he had read the latest assigned novel, because his test grade had been quite poor. He replied that he had read some of it. I asked him what he expected to have in a class in which he didn’t read the required novels. He just stared at me, and then returned to his original question, “So can you help me with my grade?”

After several more questions and a few minutes more of discussion, I ascertained that he was basically asking me to gift him with a bump in his grade. He had readily admitted that he put very little effort into the class, but he didn’t think that should matter. After 13 years in school, he still didn’t understand that grades are earned and that one has to work hard to earn a good grade. How does this happen?

I firmly believe that it begins at home. If all parents emphasize is grades, that’s all kids are going to care about. Not the love of learning, not the sense of accomplishment of doing better in a class, not the discussions and the reading that would open their minds and widen their world. When we focus on nothing but the destination of an A, we miss out on the journey, which is the part that matters. Critical thinkers don’t get that way from grade grubbing. They get that way from studying, considering options, weighing possibilities, trying different methods, and ultimately making informed decisions. This process and these skills are infinitely more important than any letter on a grade report. 

The grade will come, naturally, when kids learn to love learning. If you haven’t already, shift your focus and don’t miss the forest for the trees. Parent your kids into true learning and they will become adults who are lifelong learners.