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REAL LIFE

Homework--the Latest Household Dilemma

March 29, 1995|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here's how the PTA paints the ideal homework scene:

Your house is quiet. Your child is working quietly, perhaps at a desk in a room where there are no TVs or CD players. Or if there are, they are quiet.

You are helping. You do a few problems together. Then you watch your child do a few. You praise the right answers and show how to correct mistakes.

Like, this really happens.

In real life, parents report that homework brings on fits, tears and somatic illnesses. Not to mention what it does to their kids.

A mother of 9-year-old twins said their teachers want her to help, but she couldn't even begin to think of how to explain adding unlike fractions. Even when she can help out by, say, typing the homework and putting pretty pictures on it, she feels guilty if the girls get praised.

A father said his third-grader, who would rather play ball, goes into "slo mo" when faced with homework assignments.

Said his father: "He's just not mature enough to plot out a time frame and sit down and do it. We're supposed to encourage him, but be as hands-off as we can, which is just not possible."

Another said his daughters, 8 and 11, are perfectionists. With teachers preparing them for middle school with multiple classes and unpredictable homework loads, "it drives them crazy. When the kids are driven crazy, it drives the parents crazy."

They are not alone. Homework is, in fact, a "ubiquitous, continuous national problem," said Joyce Epstein, co-director of Johns Hopkins University's Center of Families and Communities, and a leader in homework research. Rather than the homework load, which seems to be increasing in response to economic competition, the larger problem is the design, she said. "If it's too tough for children, it's inappropriate homework," she said.

Epstein has introduced "interactive" homework, in which kids demonstrate what they know to their parents so "we don't end up in fits and tears, so people are not wondering 'Whose homework is it?' "

Meanwhile, parents are torn between conflicting messages. Some listen to an inner voice that whispers, "Do it for them," or "Make sure the homework is perfect," repeating the statistics linking parent involvement with academic success.

Others heed the voice that says, "Back off," echoing those who say kids need to experience natural consequences to get motivated--even if it means poor grades.

Some careen between the two extremes.

Kerby Alvy, executive director of the Center for the Improvement of Child Caring in Studio City, said parents ought to choose from among three basic approaches. While some experts do advocate pulling back as a way to avoid conflict and teach logical consequences, others advise using systematic consequences and incentives. A new third approach focuses on parents becoming "consultants" to kids, coaching them, sharing wisdom, showing appreciation afterward, but without invoking consequences for not following their advice.

"I like to do what works," Alvy said. "Find out what's good for your kids."

The methods, as well as parent-school connections, will be topics presented at CICC's national parenting instructors conference, April 19-21, at the Sheraton Universal Hotel in Universal City.

Alvy said parents get into the most trouble when their own egos get involved in their children's achievement.

One middle school teacher recalled a father who had a "temper tantrum" when a paper he wrote for his son received a C. "He interpreted helping his son as helping him get a higher grade," she said. After an hour and a half talk with the principal, the father realized that he was too involved in his son's academics. "Now he's committed to athletics," Alvy said.

"You have to gauge how much you want to be in the middle. Whose life is this?"

Parents are torn between conflicting messages. Some listen to an inner voice that whispers, 'Do it for them,' or 'Make sure the homework is perfect.' . . . Others heed the voice that says, 'Back off.' Some careen between the two extremes.

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