With less than an hour to go before my seven-year-old daughter’s bedtime, my home was a long way from being the oasis of calm I was hoping for at that time of evening.
Instead Lily had just scribbled all over her homework worksheet, thrown her pencil on the floor and was now yelling at the top of her voice: ‘I hate Math. I suck at it.’
With my younger daughter to put to bed, Lily in a melt-down and me exhausted after a day at work, the tension was rapidly rising.
But even if I could calm ourselves down, there was no end in sight. Even if I could persuade her to finish her math homework, Lily still had the whole book reading to do.
So I was facing two choices –
Should I stand over her and insist that not doing homework was NOT an option?
Or, should I tell her to put the books away, write a note to her teacher and just let her unwind and play in the lead-up to bedtime?
Have you been there? What choice would you make?
The choice I would make now is very different to what my choice would have been a few years back.
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Back then, I’d try to push through with a mixture of cajoling and prompting and assurances that she did know how to do her Math really.
If that didn’t work then maybe in despair and frustration that she didn’t seem to want to try, I would have got angry and tried to explain how serious I was about this.
A Game of One-Upmanship
Like every parent, I had started out assuming I was simply doing the very best for my child by making sure her work was as good as it could be.
After all, what choice did I have? From the very early days in the private nursery she attended, I found myself surrounded by lots of other mothers locked into the same race to make their children the brightest and the best.
As Lily got older, I came to learn how insidiously contagious pushy parenting is.
If one of the mothers spotted another parent with a Kumon Math folder, we all rushed to sign up too – for fear our children would get left behind.
Neurosis underpinned every conversation at the school gates – particularly as all of us were aiming to get our children into a small handful of selective private schools in the area.
Bit by bit, the parenting journey which had started off being so exciting and rewarding, was turning into a stressful game of one-upmanship.
But children are not products to be developed and put on show to reflect well on us.
Depending on what happens on the night, every child is conceived with a unique combination of genes which also maps out their strengths, weaknesses and personality traits before they are even born.
Lily may have been bred into a competitive hotbed. But as an innately modest and sensitive child, she decided she did not want to play.
The alarm bells started ringing in Grade Three when, after I personally made sure she turned in the best Space project, she won the prize. While I applauded uproariously from the sidelines, Lily, then seven, fled the room in tears and refused to accept the book token from the Head.
When she calmed down, she explained she hated us making a fuss. But what is just as likely is that she disliked the fact that her successes had become as much ours as hers. Even at that young age, no doubt she also realized that the more she succeeded, the more pressure she would be under to keep it up.
Over the next few years, the issues only deepened.
The Problem of Not Doing Homework
Slowly, Lily started to find excuses for not doing homework. Our home started to become a battlefield. She would barely open her books before yelling: “I’m stuck” –when really she was just terrified of getting it wrong.
The increasing amounts of homework sent home by the school gradually turned our house into a war zone – with me as the drill sergeant.
Homework is one of the most common flash points between kids and parents – the crossroads at which academic endeavors meet parental expectations at close quarters – and behind closed doors.
Surveys have found that homework is the single biggest source of friction between children and parents. One survey found that forty per cent of kids say they have cried during rows over it. Even that figure seems like a dramatic underestimate.
Yet more and more, it is recognized that homework undermines family time and eats into hours that should be spent on play or leisure.
A straightforward piece of work that would take a child twenty minutes at school can easily take four times as long at home with all the distractions and delaying tactics that go with it.
As a result, children get less sleep, go to bed later and feel more stressed.
Homework has even started to take over the summer vacations.
Once the long break was seen as a chance for children to have adventures, discover themselves and explore nature. Now the summer months are viewed as an extension of the academic year – a chance for kids to catch up… or get ahead with workbooks and tutoring.
But ultimately homework abides by the law of diminishing returns.
Researchers at Duke University found that after a maximum of two hours of homework, any learning benefits rapidly start to drop off for high school students.
While some children will do everything to avoid doing it, at the other extreme others will become perfectionists who have to be persuaded to go to bed. Some moms I spoke to had to bribe their children to do less!
Given the cloud of anxiety hovering over them, no wonder some of these children perceive education as stressful.
Pushed to the Brink
Perhaps fewer parents would go down the path of high performance parenting if they realized how much resentment it creates in their children. The irony is that all this obsession with pushing our kids towards success, pushes away the very people we are trying to help.
While all of us would say we love our children no matter what, unfortunately that’s not the message our kids hear. Instead, children become angry when they feel we are turning them into passive projects. Rather than feel like they are disappointing us, they disconnect. Early signs may be they become uncommunicative after school, stop looking parents in the eye, secretive or avoidant.
But we need to remember that unhappy stressed kids don’t learn.
Over the next few years, Lily’s insistence on not doing homework kept getting worse. To try and get to the bottom of it, my husband Anthony and I took her to see educational psychologist who found strong cognitive scores and no signs of learning difficulties.
But what the report did identify was how profoundly Lily’s self-worth had been affected. Even though I had never once told her she should be top of the class, she still felt she had to be good at everything. If she couldn’t be, she didn’t think there was any point trying at all.
It was clear despite our best efforts to support her, Lily constantly felt criticized. She was becoming defensive and resentful.
Most serious of all, by claiming she couldn’t do her homework – when she could – she was testing if my love for her was conditional on her success.
I had to face up to the painful truth that unless I took immediate action – and killed off my inner Tiger Mom – my child and I were growing apart.
So for the sake of my daughter, I realized I had to change direction and take my foot off the gas.
When her tutor rang to tell me Lily needed a break, I was delighted to agree. Since then, I have let her focus on the subjects that really matter to her – art and music – and have let her decide what direction to take them in.
I also made a deliberate effort to spend time with Lily – just the two of us – so we can simply “be” together. Now instead of trips to the museums and classical concerts, we go for walks in the park and hot chocolates.
The Difficult Journey Back
Unfortunately, over the years, an inner critic had grown up inside Lily’s head that kept telling her she was not good enough. I realized I needed to take quite deliberate steps to address that if she was to be happy with herself again.
To help her recognize and dismiss the voice that was bringing her down, I took her to see a Neuro-Linguistic Programming coach who teaches children strategies to untangle the persistent negative thoughts that undermine their self-belief – and replace them with positive ones.
Before we began, Jenny explained that Lily’s issues are not uncommon. As a teacher of 30 years experience, Jenny believes the growing pressure on children to perform from an early age is contributing to a general rise in learning anxiety. The youngest child she has helped was six.
It’s children like Lily, who don’t relish a contest, who are among the biggest casualties.
At home, some have been made to feel they are not good enough by parents or are intimidated by more academic sisters and brothers. Some may develop an inferiority complex simply because they are born into high-achieving families.
Once established, failure can also become self-reinforcing. Even when they get good marks, children like Lily still dwell on the pupil who got the higher one to support their negative views of their abilities, making it a self-perpetuating downward spiral.
It’s when children start to see this self-criticism as fact that the negative self-talk can start.
As she sat on the sofa, Jenny asked Lily if she had ever heard a nagging voice in her head that put her down. Lily looked surprised but answered that yes, she had. Asked who it was, my daughter replied: “It’s me, but the mean me.”
Asked to draw this character, Lily depicted an angry, disapproving female figure with her hands on her hips, with a mouth spouting the words “blah, blah, blah.” When asked to name her, Lily thought for a moment before coming up with the name Miss Trunch-Lily, so-called because the figure is half herself – and half the hectoring teacher from Roald Dahl’s Matilda.
Now Miss Trunch-Lily had been nailed, Jenny and Lily agreed an easy way to deal with her would be to talk back and tell her “Shut up, you idiot” one hundred times.
But that would take a long time, so Lily and Jenny came up with a quicker solution; imagining a canon which would instantly send a shower of 60 candies into her mouth so she couldn’t say another word.
Next time Lily heard her nagging voice, all she had to do was press an imaginary button and her nemesis would be silenced.
In the months that followed, Lily seemed to relax. Gradually the procrastination about homework started to vanish – and Lily was much more likely to open her books after school and quietly get on with her homework.
A Fresh New Start
We have recently come back from a week in a seaside cottage with no Internet or phone signal. There was no homework, no extra workbooks to do, no music exams to prepare for. Nor did we use our vacation as a catch-up period to prepare the girls to get ahead.
Instead my husband, my daughters and I went on long walks with our dog. We examined different types of seaweed and examined crabs in rock pools.
Back in the cottage, we sat around and read books that interested us. I let the children play upstairs for hours, not on their phones, but in long elaborate role-plays, without feeling the need to interrupt once.
I would wager that Lily and Clio learnt more about themselves – and what they are capable of – in a single week than in a whole semester at their schools where they hardly get a moment to stop and think.
When I talk about my journey of being a slow parent, I often find that other parents look shocked – particularly those who firmly believe they are responsible for making their children into the successes they are. So, I shared my journey in the book Taming the Tiger Parent: How to put your child’s well-being first in a competitive world.
Of course, for the child born with a go-getting personality, teaming up with turbo-charged parents can be a winning combination – to start with at least.
But as adults, we have to start asking – how high we can raise the bar before it’s too high for our children to jump?
After all, a bigger picture is also emerging: a rise in anxiety disorders, depression and self-harm among children who have grown up with this continual pressure – and the emergence of a generation who believe they are losers if they fail, they’ve never done enough if they win.
Even among children who succeed in this environment, educationalists are finding pushy parenting creates a drive towards perfectionism which can turn into self-criticism when these young people can’t live up to such high standards.
I’m happy that in the midst of this arms race to push our kids more and more, there are changes afoot. Around the world, parents and educators are drawing up a blue-print for an alternative.
Whether it’s slow parenting, minimalist parenting, free-range parenting – or the more bluntly named Calm the F*** Down parenting, there is recognition that we need to resist the impulse to constantly push and micro-manage.
As a mother to Lily, as well as my younger daughter, Clio, I’ve decided I don’t want to be a part of all those crushing burdens of expectations. I want to provide a relief from it.
Apart from the fact it makes children happier, it’s also so much more fun.
Now I love the fact that when Lily messes around in the kitchen making cupcakes, I no longer have to fight the urge to tell her to hurry up – and badger her to finish her homework.
Of course, not doing homework is not an option – but these days in our house the aim is to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. If a concept is not understood, I don’t pull my hair out trying to be the teacher and trying to play ‘catch-up’. If Lily, now 12, genuinely does not understand it, I write a note to the member of the staff to explain that it may need further explanation. It’s a simple system and is working perfectly fine for us.
I like it that when she comes home from school, and I ask her, ‘How are you?’ I really mean it. It’s no longer code for: ‘What marks did you get today, darling?’ and I’m not thinking ‘Hurry up with your answer, so we can get on with your homework.’
Most of all I love the fact that I can finally appreciate Lily for the person she is now– a 12-year-old girl with an acerbic sense of humor who likes Snoopy, play-dates and kittens – and not for the person I once wanted her to be.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
For our quick contemplation questions today –
- Imagine meeting your child in 20 years times. Ask them to describe their childhood. Do they describe it as magical? Or do they look back on it as a race from one after school activity and homework project to the next?
- Ask yourself what do you want for your children? When you say you want your children to be happy, what has that come to mean to you? If you really analyze it, has it drifted into being interpreted as professional success and financial acumen? Furthermore, have you come to judge success by a very narrow definition of traditional career achievement and earning power?
- Now check again. If you look around you, what do the happiest people you know have in common? Is it material goods, high-flying jobs and academic qualifications? Or is it emotional balance? If you approach the question another way, are the wealthiest people you know also the most satisfied with life?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Spend some time sorting through any conflicts related to your kids not doing homework.
To start with, train your children in good habits and place time limits on how long homework should take from the start.
Ask the school how long a child should spend on each subject at night. Then you can help keep those limits in place by telling kids they can’t spend a minute more – or a minute less – than the allotted time.
Find the time of the day after school that works best for your child – either straight after arriving home or after a short break. Agree a start time every day so that the rule turns into a routine and there is less room for resistance and negotiation.
Don’t finish their homework for kids because you are desperate to get it off the evening’s to-do list. That will just mask the problem and get you dragged into a nightly conflict. Help them instead to take responsibility for their homework, while you provide guidance from the sidelines on an on-need basis.