Mad Homework

7 Ways to Stop the Parent-Child Power Struggle Over Homework

By Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC

Do you find yourself in full-on homework battles most nights of the week? It’s no surprise that most children and teens will dig in their heels when it comes to doing schoolwork. Think of it this way: How many kids want to do something that isn’t particularly exciting or pleasant? Most would prefer to be playing video games, riding their bikes or driving around with friends, especially after a long day of school and activities.

As long as you believe you are accountable (or to blame) for your child’s outcome, you are under her control.

The underlying truth here is that you and your child might already be caught in a power struggle over this. Like most parents, you probably want your children to do well and be responsible. Maybe you worry about your child’s future. After all, doing homework and chores are your child’s prime responsibilities, right? Let’s face it, it’s easy to get anxious when your kids are not doing what they’re supposed to be doing—and when you know how important doing schoolwork is. And when you believe you are ultimately responsible for the choices your child makes (and many of us do, consciously and unconsciously), the ante is upped and the tug of war begins.

Nagging, Lecturing and Yelling—But Nothing Changes?

If you’re in the habit of threatening, lecturing, questioning your child, nagging or even screaming at them “do the work!” (and trust me, we’ve all been there), you probably feel like you’re doing whatever it takes to get your kids on track. But when you’re in your child’s head, there’s no room for him to think for himself. And unfortunately, the more anxious you are, the more you’ll hold on in an attempt to control him and push him toward the task at hand. What happens then? Your child will resist by pushing back. That’s when the power struggle ensues. Your child, in essence, is saying, “I own my own life—stay out!” Now the battle for autonomy is getting played out around homework and chores, and exactly what you feared and hoped to avoid gets created.

This is very aggravating for parents to say the least. Many of us get trapped into thinking we are responsible for our child’s choices in life. As long as you believe you are accountable (or to blame) for your child’s outcome, you are under their control. This is because you will need your child to make those good choices—do the work—so you will feel that you’re doing a good job. Your child’s behavior becomes a reflection of you. You are now at your child’s mercy as you trying to get him to do what you want him to do so you can feel validated as a good parent. Your child does not want to be taking care of your emotional well-being, so he will naturally resist.

When kids are not following through on their responsibilities, it can easily trigger a number of feelings in parents. Note that your child did not cause these feelings, but rather triggered feelings that already belong to you. You might be triggered by a feeling of anger because you feel ineffective or fear that your child will never amount to anything. Or you might feel guilt about not doing a good enough job as a parent. Here’s the truth:  You have to be careful not to let these triggered feelings cause you to push your kids harder so that you can feel better. One of the toughest things parents have to do is learn how to soothe their own difficult feelings rather than ask their children to do that for them. This is the first step in avoiding power struggles.

Why are power struggles important to avoid? They inadvertently create just what you’ve feared. Your child is living his life in reaction to you rather than making his own independent choices. Learning how to make those choices is a necessary skill that develops self-motivation.  How can you avoid ending up in these battles? Here are 7 tips that can really help.

1. You are not responsible for your child’s choices. Understand that you are not responsible for the choices your child makes in his life. It’s impossible to take on that burden without a battle for control over another human being. Measure your success as a parent by how you behavenot by what your child chooses to do or not do. Doing a good job as a parent means that you have done all that you can do as a responsible person. It does not mean that you have raised a perfect person who has made all the right choices. Once you really get this, you won’t be so anxious about your child’s behaviors, actions, and decisions. You will be able to see your child from objective, not subjective, lenses and therefore be able to guide their behavior, because you’ll have seen what he actually needs.

2. You cannot make someone care—but you can influence them. You cannot get a person to do or care about what they don’t want to do or care about. Our kids have their own genetics, roles, and ultimately their own free will. So focusing on getting your child to change or getting something from her will not work long-term and will most often turn into a power struggle. What you can do is try to influence your child using only what is in your own hands. For example, when it comes to homework, you can structure the environment to create the greatest probability that the work will get done.

3. Think about the “fences” you’d like to create for your child. Take charge of your own best thinking and decisions rather than trying to control your child’s. Pause, think and decide what fences you want to create for your child. What are your bottom lines? Know what you can and can’t do as a parent. Recognize that what will make the biggest difference to your child (and helping him become a responsible kid who makes good choices) will be learning how to inspire him, not control him. Building a positive relationship with your kids is your best parenting strategy. Children want to please the people in their lives that they have loving feelings toward. You cannot ultimately make them accept your values, but you can inspire them to do so. Getting a child to listen to you is primarily about setting up the conditions under which they choose to do so. In order to do this, make a conscious effort to sprinkle your relationship with more positive interactions than negative ones. Hug, show affection, laugh together, and spend time with one another. Point out your appreciations most instead of constantly correcting, instructing, teaching, yelling, complaining, or reprimanding.  Don’t get me wrong, you need to correct and reprimand as a parent. But make a conscious effort so that every time you do this, you will follow it with many positive interactions. The human brain remembers the negatives much more than the positives. Most kids will be happy to listen and be guided by the people in their lives who they like and respect.

4. Should you give consequences when kids don’t do homework? Parents always ask whether or not they should give consequences to kids if they don’t do their homework—or instead just let the chips fall where they may.  I think you can give consequences, and that might work temporarily—maybe even for a while. Perhaps your child will learn to be more responsible or to use anxiety about the consequences to motivate themselves. You can’t change someone else, but consequences might help them get some homework done. You can’t “program” your child to care about their work, but you can create a work environment that promotes a good work ethic. Kids who regularly get their homework done and study do better throughout school and overall in life.

5. How structuring the environment can encourage studying. Again, you can’t make a child do anything that he doesn’t feel like doing, but you can structure his environment to create the greatest probability that the work will get done. When your child’s grades slip, or you find that he’s not getting his work in on time, you are automatically “invited in” to supervise and help him get on track. You can make sure that for certain periods of time, he will not be able to do anything other than schoolwork. The rule is during that time, no electronics are allowed—just homework and studying. By doing this, you are providing a structure to do what your child probably can’t do yet for himself. The hour and a half that you set aside should be a time when you will be around to enforce the rules that you have set. Give a fixed amount of time and once that time is up, your child is free to go elsewhere, homework done or not. Stay consistent with this plan, even if he fights you on it. This plan will accomplish the possibility that your child will get some homework done and maybe over time, create some better work habits. That’s all. This plan should be in place, whether or not he has homework. He can read, review or study if he doesn’t have any during that time. Let him know that these rules will change when his grades begin to reflect his potential and when you are not getting negative reports from teachers about missing homework. When he accomplishes this, tell him you will be happy to have him be fully in charge of his own homework.

6. Parents of Defiant kids. Extremely defiant kids who don’t seem to care about consequences really try their parents. Some of these kids suffer from ADHD, ODD, learning disabilities, emotional issues and many other issues. Defiance has become a way for them to try and solve their problems. With defiant kids, parents need to be very cognizant of working to develop positive relationships, no matter how difficult. Above all, work to avoid getting pulled into a power struggle. Your child will need many more learning opportunities and more rewards and negative consequences—and more time to learn these lessons than less defiant child. And if nothing changes, and your child continues to be defiant, you must continue to work on your own patience and be thoughtful about your own bottom line. Most important, continue to love your child and keep showing up.

7. Your simple message to your child. Be clear, concise and direct. Your simple message to your kids, which does not require lectures or big sit down conversations is, “Your job is to take care of your responsibilities, which includes getting your homework done and helping out in the house. That’s my expectation for you. Once you’ve done that each day, you are welcome to do what you’d like.” Remember, as a parent your job is to essentially help your child do her job.

Homework Hell? Part I: How to Turn It Around

By James Lehman, MSW

Has homework time become the seventh circle of hell in your house, with you nagging your kids to do their assignments and fighting with them over each math problem? If you and your child are battling nightly over schoolwork, read on to hear the real solutions James Lehman offers to this frustrating problem, in Part I of Homework Hell.

Avoid getting sucked into power struggles with your child at all costs. Let me be very clear here: fighting over homework is a losing proposition for both of you.

Parents get stuck in homework battles with their kids all the time. Either their children get distracted halfway through and want to give up, or they resist doing the work in the first place. As many parents know all too well, this resistance can often take the form of acting out behavior: kids will yell, start fights with you, or even throw a tantrum to avoid doing their work. Sometimes they start their homework and then throw their hands up in the air and say, “This is too hard,” or “I’m bored,” or “Why do I have to do this stupid stuff anyway?” As hard as it can be to not take that bait, my advice to you is to avoid getting sucked into power struggles with your child at all costs. Let me be very clear here: fighting over homework is a losing proposition for both of you. You will end up frustrated, angry and exhausted, while your child will have found yet another way to push your buttons. And wind up hating school and hating learning—exactly what you don’t want to have happen.

So why is homework time often so difficult? In my opinion, one of the major reasons is because it can be hard for kids to focus at home. Look at it this way: when your child is in school, he’s in a classroom where there aren’t a lot of distractions. The learning is structured and organized, and all the students are focusing on the same thing. But when your child comes home, his brain clicks over to “free time” mode. In his mind, home is a place to relax, have a snack, listen to music, and maybe watch TV and play video games. So for better or worse, kids often simply don’t view home as the place to do schoolwork.

The good news is that there are effective techniques you can use to end the nightly battle over homework. This week, I’ll be telling you about some powerful things you can do at home to change your child’s mindset about doing schoolwork. And next week, I’ll give you specific tips that will help your child get the work done—and help you leave homework hell behind.

  1. Start Early
    I always tell parents that the earlier they can begin to indoctrinate their children with the idea that schoolwork is a part of home life—just as chores are—the more their kids will internalize the concept of homework as being a regular part of life. If your child is older and you haven’t done this, that does not mean there isn’t hope for him. It simply means you will initially have to work a lot harder to get him on track with his schoolwork.
  2. Make Night time Structured Time
    When your kids come home, there should be a structure and a schedule set up each night. I recommend that you write this up and post it on the refrigerator or in some central location in the house. Kids need to know that there is a time to eat, a time to do homework and also that there is free time. And remember, free time starts after homework is done. By the way, when it’s homework time, it should be quiet time in your whole house. Siblings shouldn’t be in the next room watching TV or playing video games. If your child doesn’t have homework some nights, it still should be a time when there is no Facebook, TV or video games. They can read a book or a magazine in their room, but there should be no electronics. In our house, homework time was usually after dinner, from seven to eight o’clock. The whole idea is to take away distractions. The message to your child is, “You’re not going to do anything anyway, so you might as well do your homework.”
  3. Don’t Fight with Your Child
    Make it very clear that if they don’t do their homework, then the next part of their night does not begin. And don’t get sucked into arguments with them. Just keep it simple: “Right now is homework time. The sooner you get it done, the sooner you can have free time.” Say this in a supportive way with a smile on your face. Again, it’s really important not to get sucked into your child’s fight. And when you establish a nightly structure, it will be easier to avoid power struggles over homework.
  4. Know Your Child’s Homework List
    I think it’s very important to know what your child’s homework is—parents need to make sure it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. Having good communication with your child’s teachers is key, because your child will have homework every night as he or she gets older. If your child is not handing in their work on time, you can set it up so the teacher will send you any assignments that your child didn’t get done each week. You might have to work to get your child’s teachers to do this, but you’re going to get important information from them about your child’s progress. And the bottom line is that you want to hold your child accountable for doing their work. That way, when the report card comes home, you—and your child—won’t be surprised by the grades they receive.
  5. Establish a Token Economy in Your Home
    Don’t forget, we want to pay kids in a currency that they desire. Extra carrots are not going to get much out of your child, but an extra fifteen minutes before bedtime or extending their curfew by half-an-hour on Friday night will. (call out This kind of system is called a “token economy”. The “tokens” become the currency, and in this case, the extra time playing video games, watching TV, and using the computer is the money. You want to withhold it or give it out according to how your child is earning it.
  6. Map out a List of Rewards and Consequences
    Parents should have a list of rewards and consequences mapped out for all their kids. It should be a pretty big list, and might include things like going to the park, going to the movies, and going bowling. Have a section that lists the video games your child likes to play and the TV shows he likes to watch, because this is what he will be rewarded with. I have parents sit down with their kids and say, “All right, when you do well and I want to reward you, what kinds of things would you like to do?” Be sure to include activities that don’t cost money, too, like going to the beach, taking a ride in the car, or playing board games. Then, if your child is able to finish his homework on time for a whole week, at the end of the week he gets rewarded from the list you’ve compiled.

Keep in mind that our job as parents is to help guide and coach our children with their schoolwork, but it’s also our job to let them experience the natural consequences when they don’t get it done. That might mean that they get a poor grade, which is the result of not following through on their responsibilities. It’s so important to let your child experience the disappointment that comes with that, because that will help motivate them to try harder next time. And as a parent, when the report card comes along, if your child is not at some baseline that you’ve determined, (it might be that they should get nothing lower than a B, for example) then they should lose some of their privileges at home. That might mean they can’t study alone in their room until they bring their grades up, and you might have to watch them more closely when they do their work.

Remember, a major part of ending power struggles over homework lies in establishing structure, giving consequences and rewards, and getting your child to see that schoolwork is a regular part of home life. Once they accept that, you’ve already won half the battle.

In Part 2 of this series, James gives you specific techniques to get your child off the starting block when it comes to homework, tips on how to motivate teenagers to do their work, and how to handle conflicts with after school activities and schoolwork.

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