I hate to quibble with a masterpiece, but I have to say, Dante's Inferno is incomplete.
It lacks a circle of hell devoted to homework.
If Mr. Alighieri were alive today and a parent in Chevy Chase, I am sure he'd correct this oversight, perhaps by substituting the torments of the damned—students and their parents—for that canto on the virtuous pagans. (Hell always seemed kind of a harsh fate for poor, blind Homer.) Dante, after all, is one of the greatest poets who ever lived, so I am sure he could fit plenty of Wall Words into terza rima.
If my Inferno allusion isn’t working for you, how about this one: Hell is other people’s homework.
On any given afternoon or evening at our house, chances are high that at some point, someone will begin weeping, writhing or at least gnashing their teeth. That someone is not always one of the children.
You know you know what I am talking about. Yes, I am exaggerating—but just a little. It's true, some nights the homework gets done quickly and unaided, but too often, it has engendered confusion or frustration in my children. Or in me.
When I am called in to help, I usually waft over to the kitchen table with the smug serenity of a former nerd and with the best of intentions. Homework can be fun! I will merely clarify! Provide emotional support! Tell them where to find the children's dictionary!
And then I can't understand the worksheet's directions, either.
Or I don't divide the way the teacher showed them. Or I can't think of a fifth sentence using the word "environment."
And there tends to be so much of it! The ratio of afternoons where homework was completed in 15-20 minutes to the afternoons where homework took twice that long is not good, at least in our house. Perhaps it's the sporadic interruptions of operatic emotions.
You may be thinking that I'm just a terrible, weak-willed parent (you could be right!) or that my children are just terrible, melodramatic students. (No way! I'd defend to the death their right to bang their heads rhythmically against the kitchen table upon being asked to come up with 10 synonyms for the word "bounty" and then cut them out and paste them on a separate page for a "bounty" tree! And then to repeat the whole thing nine more times in order to create a "Vocabulary Forest!" Of course, they may just be feeding off my growing irritation at not being able to find the glue sticks...)
At any rate, I am not alone. The experience of watching her son, Henry, slog through his work each night in second grade inspired writer Alice Bradley to pen a hate letter to "Homework" last year in Redbook:
"But this year, Homework—this year you morphed into a bloated, time-sucking monster, at one moment boring Henry to tears with your mindless repetition and in the next confusing him to the point of tears. You stay for far too long every night, cutting into the little family time we get to have after dinner. You exhaust all of us. We are done with you...we'd rather spend an evening enjoying each other's company than engaging in mindless drills of information he is supposed to be learning in school."
Bradley then imagined "Homework" writing back to her:
Not true! Not true! I am very important. List all the ways in which I am very important! Fill in ovals completely! Repeat! Show your work!"
I am sure that a few of you are scratching your heads wondering, "Homework? I have no idea what Johnny does. He just disappears into his room and does it. And then he takes out the garbage without being asked and balances the family checkbook."
No question, there are some independent, organized, self-motivated students out there. And as children get older and more mature, parents can and should get less involved in homework.
Indeed, the only role I really play in my high schooler’s homework is the one of the disbelieving bystander. I walk by as she's sprawled on the couch, supine, her iTouch earbuds firmly implanted, her books and papers scattered all around, and find myself saying, "Um, shouldn't you at least be sitting up?"
"Nope, I'm good," she'll respond, and I leave it at that, figuring she's got to learn what works for her, and since it does seem to be working, I should stay out of it.
But homework in the elementary school years seems to be particularly trying for parents as well as students, especially the primary grades. I couldn't believe it when my oldest brought home homework in kindergarten (silly me!), but the biggest headache was just making sure that she'd done it. By the time my kids were in second grade, though, I had learned to hate homework right along with them.
I didn't let them know it, of course. I tried to convince myself that homework would at least teach my children that being bored is a part of life, and that at least they would pick up good study habits along the way. I figured it was good for my super special snowflakes to have to sit and just do it. Welcome to the real world, seven-year-olds!
But it turns out there's no evidence that homework actually helps with study habits. According to Emily Bazelon, who wrote about the issue of homework and elementary school in Slate last month, "...there is no research to either support or debunk it—the association between early homework and study habits simply hasn't been studied."
Bazelon goes on to point out that to her, the association makes no sense at all. She notes that time management and a general notion of discipline are not "refined and specific and cumulative skills," so "why should we think that practicing homework in first grade will make you better at doing it in middle school? Doesn't the opposite seem equally plausible: that it's counterproductive to ask children to sit down and work at night before they're developmentally ready because you'll just make them tired and cross?"
It certainly seems that way to me. My youngest kids are in fifth grade now, so we are rapidly getting past the point of the truly mind-numbing stuff. The load can still feel burdensome, but the past year has brought book projects, which clearly get the kids to think, and which give them a chance to be creative. And perhaps they're just more developmentally ready to handle the more rote exercises in the spelling and math packets. They are certainly needing me less (although perhaps they've just given up on that front.)
Of course, it's still only September.