God, I hate homework …
How it ruins our elementary school kids
I hate homework.
Well, not personally, as it never really bothered me back in my American junior high and high school. Today we see it in earlier and earlier grades. Here in Shanghai, it starts from grade one, at age six. An hour a day, usually more.
Of detestable homework. What bothers me is not the homework itself, but the concept of homework for kids at this age. And how destructive it is.
The Chinese love homework. At least the parents do. Shanghai recently reduced the amount teachers can assign in the early years, and how did many parents respond? They added more outside homework, additional reading, and more tutors. In the first grade.
And there is homework for every holiday and throughout the summer, too — literally 52 weeks of homework a year. After all, why waste days off when they could be learning something? Everyone thinks it’s totally normal to have a full week of homework for a week-long HOLIDAY. Madness, I tell you.
This attitude is partly generational, as most Chinese parents had lots of homework when they were young, and despite how poorly their education fits the modern world, they feel their kids should do the same. This is somewhat the Chinese equivalent of the American adage, “I walked to school every day, uphill both ways, so you should, too.”
Parents everywhere want their kids to be well-rounded, creative, happy individuals — but in China’s competitive academic landscape, parents are prioritizing great grades and insisting their children learn everything. As far as I can tell, these goals are way more important than ensuring kids grow into well-rounded, creative, happy individuals.
After all, being creative and well-rounded is all fine and dandy, but parents “know” the way to be happy is to get a great education and make lots of money. It has ever thus been so since the imperial examinations started over a thousand years ago, with the way to prosperity was paved with textbooks and tutors.
Naturally, parents feel homework make kids learn more and faster, despite evidence it does no such thing (and is, in fact, destructive.) For example, from the largest and most famous study on this, and also in the book,The Homework Myth, “There is no evidence of any academic benefit from homework in elementary school.”
So why the hell are kids expected to spend one to two hours a night on homework? Why do schools and parents allow kids little to no time for playing with friends? Why does my son often miss valuable sleep to get his homework done?
Dumb, and destructive, I tell you.
Even in the USA, many folks quote the 10-minute rule, which suggests 10 minutes of homework per grade. For example, 4th graders would get 40 minutes of homework per day. I don’t recall having homework before the 6 or 7th grade, though some friends from around the country do.
Homework’s Effect on Kids
Not only is homework not helping our kids, but it’s actively hurting them — and doing so in ways that will be hard to fix later. The real problem is not the homework itself, but what it robs from our children, especially sleep and play, and what it dumps on them, especially stress and conflict.
An article in The Perspective nicely summarizes the three main problems with requiring homework in the early grades:
- Prevents kids from spending time on other things (like play)
- Increases stress
- Actually counterproductive
No More Playtime
The biggest loser in the push for more homework is playtime, which is already getting sucked out of childhood these days. Homework is just one culprit for decreased playtime. Additional school testing (which often reduces recess time), plus tutoring, the college admissions scramble, and more serious sports are also to blame for the decline in the amount of time children are free to play or pursue their own interests.
Kids need playtime, as it’s way, way more than just a waste of time or just a way to keep kids busy. It’s where they learn a lot about socialization, friendships, sharing, negotiation, and more. Plus, play helps create confidence and creativity, especially if it’s away from electronics. The evidence is increasingly clear: We must not sacrifice childhood playtime for anything.
Sadly, here in China, parents put no significant value on play, at least among upper-class parents (lower-class parents can’t afford all the tutors & activities, so kids play more). It’s nearly impossible to schedule play dates as kids are doing homework at night and have tutoring and other classes on the weekends. Most parents I know prioritize homework over play all the time; actually, homework and tutoring are often prioritized over everything, including sleep and family relations.
Kids with too much homework also miss out on other important activities, like family time, movie time, hanging out with friends, spending time with parents or siblings, and sleep. Given all the recent research on sleep, we should prioritize it for our kids. Staying up late to finish homework is never a healthy tradeoff.
Stress & Conflict
Too much homework also generates stress, both within the child and between children and parents. I’ve seen this very much firsthand, as homework permeated our home life and my child’s thoughts, such that he goes to bed and wakes up worrying about homework.
Early homework for young children can also easily create negative emotions toward homework itself, something very evident in my son. He hates it now and perhaps will forever. I worry this will be very hard to improve in later grades — junior high, high school, and beyond — when homework is actually useful and important.
Even worse, homework can turn kids off from school and learning altogether, especially when coupled with the normal childhood challenges of confidence, making friends, managing bullies, etc. The last thing kids (and parents!) want after a difficult day is to fight with parents and be forced to do homework they hate. This leads nowhere good, I’m sure.
Finally, homework seeds conflict within the family when parents have to consistently nag the child to do it. This is especially damaging to the parent-child relationship when parents treat homework as if it’s more important than anything else. It can also create friction between parents if they don’t happen to agree with each other about how and if homework should be prioritized.
I see conflict surrounding homework day after day here in Shanghai, despite numerous books covering how destructive this conflict is to families. It can ruin parental relations, for the sake of something useless. Very frustrating to watch, I assure you.
A good summary by a Duke researcher in this book, The Battle over Homework, concludes: “[H]omework wrecks elementary school students.”
There Is Value
Now, before we completely crap all over all homework at any level, there are indeed some benefits for kids in early grades, especially if reading is involved.
Some of these benefits, from a good list I saw recently, include the following (with my comments in parentheses):
- Giving kids an opportunity to practice concepts learned in class (This is probably especially true in math, writing, and other procedure-based subjects.)
- Helping kids learn responsibility and accountability (Always a good thing, unless parental nagging destroys the child’s sense of responsibility.)
- Encouraging parental involvement (Yes, though in my experience, this involvement can easily devolve into nagging, complaining, and real conflict.)
The problem is, what we are trading for these benefits, and is what we’re trading worth it? One can (and people do) argue that homework in small doses is useful for the very reasons mentioned above, and as long as it’s managed and balanced, it can and does add value. I can be convinced to go along with this argument. And encouraging reading is always good, any time.
Schools Going Homework-Free
I never had elementary school homework, and some schools are returning to this baseline. They are, instead, letting kids focus on play, activities they enjoy, family time, and sleep.
If you have kids, I urge you to think about your approach to your child’s homework and how to avoid the associated negative aspects. Consider prioritizing other more intrinsically valuable activities instead. Think about playtime, family time, exploration time, and more.
More freedom might actually improve your child’s ability to absorb lessons, and increase their enthusiasm for learning, and leave them with lifelong social and emotional health. Your kids, and society, will thank you.
- Do your kids do too much homework?
- Growing number of elementary schools now homework-free — Good article & interview by CBS News.
- Nix Homework to Help Students? What the science says — Article by LifeScience
- Is Homework Good for Kids? Here’s What the Research Says — Time Magazine on the homework debate
- Book: The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing
- Second-grade teacher’s unique homework policy goes viral — CBS News
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