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Why Homework in Elementary School is a Bad Idea

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My family recently had an extraordinarily good week. It was more relaxing, less stressful, and more harmonious than usual. I am saddened by the reason why — my third grader had a significantly reduced homework load last week. The weekly homework packet did not go out as usual due to parent-teacher conferences, a third grade musical and an early release day. Instead of a 5-page packet with language, spelling, math, and writing activities, 4 daily math homework sheets, and a weekly reading log… we had two days of math homework and our weekly reading log. It felt like vacation.

Our afternoons and evenings were less chaotic and slower-paced, our weekends were free of the mandatory homework packet work, and we entirely avoided that “night-before-the-packet-is-due” freakout when we realize we’d procrastinated too long on the writing assignment. It dawned on me at the end of the week that we simply hadn’t experienced that familiar strain of rushing to get homework done. It had been such a pleasant treat. And next week, it would be back to normal. I felt depressed.

The weekly homework packet isn’t terribly difficult, but it is time consuming. The kids complete several pages of spelling and vocabulary work, and then there is a fun! math game that generally takes for freaking ever. It usually involves dice, colored pencils, 45 minutes that I don’t have, and a glass of Syrah. After that comes the writing assignment, which as a writer myself I don’t dislike, but it also takes quite a bit of time, as the kids are expected to first brainstorm ideas, then revise and proofread their work, and finally neatly write or type (Ohmygawd have you ever stood behind a third grader and watched them type 5 sentences? 20 solid minutes of restraining yourself from intervening and screaming, “Jesus take the wheel!”)

And here’s the sad reality, folks — we don’t even have it as bad as some other elementary school students. A close friend of mine has a second grader at another school, and in addition to 4 days a week of math homework, they also have regular spelling homework, the reading log, and a Physical Education Log. That’s right—they’re expected to log their child’s physical exercise. If it were me, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from scrawling snide and passive-aggressive entries such as “Johnny ran across the yard 42 times today!” or “Suzy jumped on the couch for 8 whole minutes while watching Austin and Ally!” Can you even imagine having to record that stuff?

I am fully aware that my anti-homework stance will be interpreted by some as whiny and lazy. Perhaps so. Maybe my attitude even merits being slapped with a condescending hashtag: I mean, if too much homework doesn’t qualify as a #FirstWorldProblem, what does? It’s right up there with me lamenting that my minivan needs an oil change and I don’t have time between my mani-pedi and Zumba class. (That’s a lie, by the way. I don’t get manicures and I suck at Zumba.)

But what if it’s about more than just an irritated working mother being pissed off that Homework Time has become the new Happy Hour? (Because, duh, you likely need to pour a cocktail to survive it.) What if it really is a bad idea in general to have such rigorous homework expectations for kids in the primary grades? Beneath any layer of laziness and annoyance, I honestly believe that too much homework is absolutely the wrong thing for our children. Here are a few reasons why:

1. There is plenty of time for children to learn the value of hard work outside of school when they’re a little bit older. When do our children get time to just be kids, the way we did 30 years ago? Parents who were raised in the 70s and 80s enjoyed so much more unstructured time than this generation of children does, and I personally don’t know anyone who had regular homework in elementary school in 1984. And for crying out loud, we turned out just fine. Let’s let kids be kids, and other clichés about things “going so fast.” Because it’s true.

2. Many parents aren’t equipped to help their children with homework. I’m not just talking about the plight of the two-working-parent family and a lack of hours in the day. For those of us children of the 70s and 80s, the math our kids are learning is a completely different ballgame. We memorized problems, a practice that is discouraged in most elementary schools today. I know there are a plethora of angry Facebook groups of “Parents Against the Common Core!” but I’m not here to dispute that the “new math” is a solid program. Most of my teacher friends swear that it is a superior method of instruction, and I believe them. But most parents haven’t the first clue how to help our kids do it the “right way,” and nothing infuriates a first grader more than their parent using the wrong lingo during homework time. We parents don’t get a tutorial on how to teach this stuff, so if a 6-7 hour school day, 5 days a week, isn’t enough time for a child to learn a new concept, they shouldn’t be learning it. Expecting parents to have the necessary skills to back up a new style of learning is setting everyone up for failure.

3. In our too-busy culture, there simply isn’t time for daily homework. I personally do not belong to the “over-scheduled family” club; it’s just too much for my sensitive temperament. Our third grader has one weekly dance class, and her poor three-year-old sister does jack squat outside of preschool. But that’s another pressure lurking in the cul-de-sac of modern families: aren’t we supposed to be doing at least one sport, learning a foreign language, perhaps a martial art, and obviously an instrument, too? Shouldn’t our child be playing competitive soccer on the weekends, traveling for gymnastic meets, and meeting weekly for Spanish club? Aren’t we supposed to be enriching our children’s lives, if not preparing them to look good on their college applications? And shit, I forgot all about Scouts, and church youth group, and let’s be mindful that if we don’t preserve “Family Meal Time” every night, our kids will turn into narcissists! And we can just forget about that archaic practice of “playing with one’s friends.” That’s so 20th century.

4. It puts too much pressure and stress on children. When a first grader is in tears regularly because he or she can’t figure out their daily math homework, something is wrong. My daughter is not in the coveted GT (gifted and talented) program, but she does just fine in school; she is a good student and a great reader. Given that she has frequently become frustrated with homework in the past few years, I can only imagine the feeling of dread that accompanies homework time for the family of a student with learning or attention challenges or special needs.

Maybe I sound like another angry mom who’s tired of being too busy. But I don’t really believe this is about me. What are we teaching our kids by putting so much on their plates at such a young age? What is there to be gained from it? There are other ways of teaching our children responsibility and work ethic. To be honest, I’m not even sure where to direct my frustration. The amount of homework given is not the directive of one teacher, or even the school itself. It begins with the district, the state, and even national standards. Many parents feel that there is nothing we can do to make a change. I am not in opposition to homework altogether — by all means, let’s give them a reading log, the occasional special project, and maybe even a night or two of math homework. But I believe that anything more than that is excessive. It’s counterproductive, it’s unnecessarily stressful, and it’s contributing to the very real phenomenon of families stretched to their breaking points.

Stephanie Sprenger is a writer, music therapist, and mother of two young girls. She blogs at Mommy, for Real about the imperfect reality of surviving the daily grind with kids, and is the co-editor of the new anthology, My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends. She can also be found squandering her precious free time on Facebook and Twitter.

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