Homework and testing madness – Make it stop

Today I was eating my Special K and scrolling through Facebook posts when I came across a status update that made me want to hurl. It was from a parent of a middle schooler who was clearly frustrated and downright exhausted from all of the homework and expectations piled on her child just a month or so into the school year. Her comment was typical and not unlike what I hear all the time as a high school teacher, but the replies and detailed comments that followed? That’s what really drove home how bad our educational partnership has become.

“I don’t remember school ever being this ridiculous,” replied one mom, followed by another, “You think 6th grade is bad, wait until 7th. All my kid does is homework, from the second he walks in the door.” One dad grudgingly admitted, “I can’t even figure out how the online program works. Am I the only one who can’t access the assignments?” Then, from a resigned mom, “I finally pulled my kid out and put her in private school so she could actually be a kid and enjoy life a little. Her new school cares about learning and doesn’t spend the whole year preparing for standardized tests.”

And these were just the first few comments. They continued, many with heavy use of collective personal pronouns: our project, our time, our exhaustion.  “We have four hours of homework every night!” one parent lamented. I couldn’t help but notice her use of the word we. What is this we she spoke of? We shouldn’t have anything, right? After all, it’s not the parents’ homework, nor is it their responsibility. Or is it?

Who is to blame for the shared frustration students and parents have toward schools? Well, I think I might have the answer.

As the author of a book on parenting teens, I spend a good bit of time talking to parents, and the questions they ask of me are as insightful as the advice I offer them. The other night, I was speaking to a group of parents about helping their children become more responsible and prepared for life after high school. A middle school parent raised her hand and said, “I hear what you’re saying and I agree wholeheartedly. The problem is that the school doesn’t let me live out what you’re saying and what I know is best for my kid. They EXPECT me to check my kids’ homework every night. They even make me sign to prove that I did it! They TELL me to sign up for gradebook alerts and call the minute I have a concern. I want to give my kids responsibility, but the school makes me feel guilty if I’m not involved in every aspect of my kids’ education.”

My advice to this mom was to follow her instincts. She knows her kids better than anyone else in the world, and she instinctively knows that parents aren’t supposed to hold their kids’ hands forever. Doing what is right for your kids is more important than letting a school guilt you into becoming overinvolved and enabling.

Parents are being made to feel that they must be the pivotal force in all of their kids’ decisions and responsibilities, and if they’re not, well, they must not be good parents. So as a natural consequence, parents now view school as just as much their domain as their kids’. And why not? They’ve been given instantaneous access to every grade their kids earn. They get lessons on how to navigate the gradebook system and set their phones to alert them each time a grade is entered. Nightly, they check assignments online, access school calendars, and receive notifications about homework expectations and due dates, tests, and quizzes. They can download the course syllabus, study guides, teacher notes, and handouts that their kids dropped on the floor or stuffed in a folder. The parents really are doing school. No wonder they refer to homework and projects as ours rather than theirs.

Oh, the hypocrisy. We chastise and poke fun at parents who won’t loosen the reigns, dubbing them Helicopter Parents. But when they try to step back, try to let their kids learn and stumble and even face failure and learn to overcome it, they’re blamed and shamed for being uninvolved. No wonder everyone feels as if they’re in a no-win situation.

So again I ask, who’s really to blame? And the answer is all of us. Involved parents make for successful kids and all the data supports that. But the minute parents start referring to schoolwork and grades as ours, they’ve stepped over the line. Schools, quit asking the impossible of parents. Quit asking them to attend school all over again. Quit making projects so intense that parents take them on in order to have just a few minutes in the day to relax a little with their kids, and quit expecting them to know every little thing their kids are doing at school. They have their own lives! Let them live them!

And parents, quit letting schools pressure you into conforming to a philosophy to which you do not subscribe. If your kids have four hours of homework every night, call the principal and ask him or her why that’s necessary. Question the validity and value of the assignments. Ask why eight hours of desk work a day isn’t enough. Insist that your child have downtime, time to play and be involved in extracurricular activities that are healthy and balanced. And don’t fold to the pressure to be hyper-involved. Do what feels right.

If I sound upset – about to hurl as I read another Facebook post about the insanity that has become our educational expectations – it’s because this nonsense that has evolved over the years has taken hold of our common sense – all of the things we used to know to be true – and we are now allowing others to dictate our levels of parenting. Our own parents never would have stood for that.

The fact of the matter is that it is time to push back. It’s time for parents and school administrators to form a united front against a well-intentioned but woefully misinformed government that is forcing curriculum and standardized testing on our kids. It’s time to halt testing companies and other educational dictators from making money off our kids’ – and our own – exhaustion.

How can you learn to let your kids do school instead of you? Check out Teenagers 101.

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Don’t let your kids trade their wings for worms

I heard a tale the other day that is especially applicable to today’s teenagers. Indulge me a moment, for it’s worth hearing:

There once lived a bird and a fox. Naturally, the bird stayed up in her tree to avoid the fox’s fangs. One day, the fox made an offer to the bird. “Just give me one feather and when you wake up in the morning, a worm will be waiting for you.” The bird didn’t see the harm, so she went along with the deal. Sure enough, the next morning, a juicy worm lay out for her dining pleasure. The fox said, “I’ll continue to keep you in delicious worms,” and the bird didn’t see the harm, so each day she exchanged a feather for a worm. Until one day when she descended the tree, enjoyed her meal, and faced the fox’s fangs. To her dismay, she found that she was unable to fly away, as she had given away all her feathers, and the fox proceeded to enjoy his own delicious meal.

Our teenagers face similar offers and temptations on a daily basis. I’ll just give in on this one little thing – no harm done – and I’ll be able to get this one big thing in return. I see it all the time, whether in academics or in their social world – they sacrifice a bit of themselves, their integrity, their honesty, their belief systems, their parental guidance, to get something that seems to come so easily, something they’d be insane to pass up.

They cheat, because studying and plodding through a multi-step process is difficult and tedious. They lie, because telling the truth would be difficult or even painful. They do drugs, because being accepted in that moment is way easier than standing individually apart from the crowd. They have indiscriminate sex, because that momentary indulgence is more satisfying – and socially acceptable – than holding out until it’s right. And yes, they hurt themselves in big and small ways because they’re thinking only of the short-term, not the long-term implications.

As parents, one of your primary responsibilities is to teach your kids not to give up their feathers for worms. Your kids should always know their bottom line. They should know where their family stands on the various issues and life circumstances they will encounter. They should have the power of their parents behind their morals, ethics, and beliefs. When they can’t find the resolve to stand up for what is right, they should be able to go to you for a recharge. You are not their cool friend who tells them to do whatever they think is best and you’ll support them one way or the other. You are their parents, their role models, their pillars of strength. You’re supposed to teach them right from wrong, even if they balk… especially if they balk.

Yes, it’s exhausting to parent well, and you will make countless mistakes before your kids ever reach the age of adulthood. But if you remain true to your convictions, it’s much more likely your kids will too. If you refuse to sacrifice yourself to societal pressures, your kids will be inclined to follow your lead. If you teach work ethic and the value of perseverance, your kids will also experience the thrill of truly earning something worthwhile.

Teach your kids that despite what society says, working hard to make your own way and letting go of the desire for instant gratification will give them the feathers to fly.

For more stories like this one, check out my book Teenagers 101. Read it now and start the school year with all the information you need to help your kids find success!