The Homework Monster

On the way back home after dropping off the boys this morning, I navigated the jumble of high-schoolers' cars descending upon the parking lot mere seconds from the bell. One car had its windows down, a familiar song pumping over its speakers.

I remember sitting in the back of my cousin's car with noise-canceling headphones on in an attempt to concentrate as I finished my homework while the same song played. (Clearly, those headphones didn't really cancel noise; at least not the volume teenagers play their music.)

No, I wasn't irresponsible. I just didn't finish the homework even after staying up all night. It used to be that I could always stay up a bit later to finish (I'll just try harder!) but when I realized there was no way I could possibly finish, even without sleep, I panicked. Of course, I had more overnight study sessions in my future, but the quality of the work I produced was questionable. (One day I dragged my pencil from the top of the page to the bottom as I nodded off to sleep in genetics class. It left a very interesting shape, but alas no legible notes.)

Amazingly, my second-grader has already experienced the point where his body completely shuts down before he finishes his work. No, he's not pulled an all-nighter yet, but for a seven-year-old kid, doing homework past bedtime is just as damaging.

I know that we made a choice to let him do competitive gymnastics instead of leaving his post-school hours free. His workout time takes away from time when he could be doing homework. But other kids are in the same boat: swimming, baseball, basketball, soccer, choir, piano, and martial arts. Even on days when he doesn't have gymnastics, his "free time" is limited in the grand scheme of things. It is no wonder kids aren't outside playing. (In fact, there is a sign by our front window that reads "I have homework!" that my son flashes to the neighbor kids when they want to play and he cannot. Although, since we're in the same school district, it makes me wonder why they don't have homework. Folks wonder why we have an obesity epidemic and a bunch of antsy kids who can't concentrate: reducing/eliminating P.E, reducing/eliminating recess, and piling on the homework doesn't help. (And in our old school, I remember being shocked that only pre-packaged store-bought food was allowed for snack under their "health guidelines.")

One of the first things that my younger son's teacher said to me after asking about physical activity - and thus hearing his workout schedule - was "Oh my! How is he going to get his homework done?" But what is funny (and would probably not be a good thing to say since my husband works for the department of education) is that I saw the question the opposite way: I don't want homework to get in the way of gymnastics.

My son's training center has a homework room for gymnasts and allows the older gymnasts breaks to do work. Academics is absolutely important, but when I see the same type of busywork sheets coming home again and again, I question the merit of extra work at home. How exactly does creating an African-American woman out of a soap bottle teach about said woman's important contributions to history?

I encourage both my sons to do their best work. I'll erase sloppy handwriting or insist they write out their essay on a fresh sheet of paper, even though this can add tons of time to their efforts. (It is quicker to do it carefully and well the first time!) I don't want them to rush through their work, even if it is getting late at night. But, I definitely second-guess the effort for a fourth page of math homework when it was clear from the first that my son knows it down pat. So, I admit there have been a couple times when I've let him skip a worksheet. I'll have him turn it in a day late, since I know he's not being "officially docked" for it. (Not so of my 5th grader, who must turn his work in on time or he risks missing recess, among other things. His backpack is scarily heavy, and it will just get worse in middle school starting next year.) Or, I'll let him just forget it, since it is one page out of 15 that are essentially identical. Besides, the best my sons can be is average on their report cards, anyway. I trust that the lessons in teamwork, dedication, and physical conditioning that my youngest receives during gymnastics is just as - if not more - valuable than homework's benefits.

I look back to my school days. I juggled competitive dance, piano, a smidgen of gymnastics, choir, yearbook committee, and a host of other activities in addition to stringent academics. I was very serious about completing ALL my homework. I put a lot of pressure on myself, and eventually got burnt out. One of my greatest regrets is that I quit dance to focus on academics. I wish I could have been a bit more lax in the academic area to have allowed myself the continued joy of dancing.

So sure, I'm living vicariously through my son as I tell him, "Don't worry about your homework right now - just enjoy gymnastics!" I'll teach him responsibility, but it will be to his team and his passions as well as to his academics. I don't want to let the homework monster win.

Content by Kari Dahlen.

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