Sarah Smiley: Are kids too busy for homework?

Have you heard about the “new” movement against assigning homework to children? I use the term “new” loosely because kids have been anti-homework since roughly the beginning of mankind, and parents balking at the nightly ritual is nothing new either. In fact, every decade or so, this issue gains momentum again after a new academic book or editorial is published.

Have you heard about the “new” movement against assigning homework to children? I use the term “new” loosely because kids have been anti-homework since roughly the beginning of mankind, and parents balking at the nightly ritual is nothing new either. In fact, every decade or so, this issue gains momentum again after a new academic book or editorial is published.

There is hardly anything new about wanting less homework.

But when the debate was raised again this fall in an article on philly.com (http://goo.gl/SXFZXH), the “new” movement was deemed to have traction: “[It’s] slowly gaining momentum in schools in the Pennsylvania suburbs, New Jersey and around the country,” the article states.

As far as I can tell, however, what’s really changed is the arguments surrounding the debate. Where once we might have argued about the usefulness of homework prompting parents and children to work together, and where once we debated whether nightly math problems further understanding, now parents are arguing that students are “too busy” for homework.

Yes, you read that right. Some people think that kids, those little human beings with no jobs, bills or other human beings dependent upon them, are too busy for homework. They aren’t responsible for getting groceries, paying for insurance or maintaining an automobile, but they are too busy for homework.

Before I continue, let me say that I am not completely ignorant to the very real academic debate about how much homework does (or does not) increase learning. That is a conversation worth having, and I don’t know the full answer. But when the argument devolves into “kids are just too busy for this,” I suggest that perhaps we are having the wrong debate. A more fruitful question might be: Why are our kids too busy for homework?

The comments on some of these anti-homework articles give some insight. Kids are too busy for homework because their afternoon is already jammed with organized sports, music lessons, foreign language lessons, dance, gymnastics, clubs — the list goes on and on. They’ve already done school in the morning, the theory goes, so homework intrudes on all the other orchestrated activities that fill their time at home.

And that’s the problem.

When I was in elementary school, my parents told me that school was my job and my top priority.

But what about sports? you ask. What about learning Japanese? What about Girl Scouts? What about piano?

I did take piano lessons for 30 minutes each week, and I went to dance for 30 minutes weekly, too. For all the other hours of my free time away from school, however, I was expected to entertain myself — which I did.

My friend Leslie and I tied shoestrings to our bike handlebars and pretended we were riding horses. We made trails in the woods behind my house. We walked to the drug store and bought real, preemie-sized diapers for our baby dolls. We made up our own games and played by our own rules. One time, we passed a tennis ball between racquets 1,364 times without letting it hit the ground. We were so proud of that.

And we did all of this completely unsupervised. My only responsibility was to be home for dinner and to do my homework afterward. Twice a week I had piano or dance, but for the most part I was inventing, creating, playing and imagining.

As I got older and more serious about piano, my lesson and practice times increased. So did my homework. Leslie and I had less time to roam the woods, but we didn’t really want to either. Sadly, we just couldn’t see our bikes as horses anymore. The real world was pressing in.

Still, those experiences we had in elementary school surely contributed to our more formalized education in intangible ways. Some homework after dinner didn’t interfere with that.

Today’s kids have this backwards. We put them in the organized sports pipeline at 2- and 3-years old, shuttling them to and from soccer multiple times a week before they’ve even started school. In grade school, they join more teams and are practicing many nights of the week. A lot of these kids are burned out on sports and activities by the time they get to junior high, which is precisely the time their childhood drive to “play” typically ends, and it makes sense to occupy a teenager’s time with sports, activities, and, yes, homework.

Again, I don’t have the answer about whether homework is beneficial to learning. I don’t know if it’s worthwhile. What I do know is that children shouldn’t be “too busy” for pretty much anything. And if that’s the only thing we have against homework, we need to ask ourselves why.

Indeed, to blame a child’s stress level on 30-minutes of homework because it interferes with sports and other structured activities might be less about meeting educational goals and more about uncovering a bigger problem.

 

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