02 08

How to make your child do her homework

Now that school is almost back in session, I would love to have a good strategy for avoiding struggles to get my 8-year-old son sit down and complete his homework. The past battles have been horrible. I personally am against too much homework, but for now, he needs to stay on task and not fight us every night about it. Thank you!

A child's natural desire to savor the moment is one of the greatest gifts they bring to our lives. Imagine how dreary the world would be if our kids didn't insist that we lighten up and have fun!

Doing pages of math problems or copying spelling words cannot compare to riding bikes, chasing the dog or, in the case of many children these days, playing an electronic game. But I do understand that homework needs to be done, and can appreciate your desire to help your son without enduring hours of whining and complaints.

Here are some ideas that might help reduce those horrid homework battles.

• Be realistic. I know there are some kids who naturally take pride in their academic achievements, but by the end of a long school day, most children simply want to have fun. While there's nothing wrong with encouraging your son to do a good job and experience the satisfaction that comes from a job well done, it is unrealistic to expect that level of care and dedication every night. Let your son know that you understand he'd rather be playing, and that you're willing to help him get his homework done so he can get back to the things he enjoys.

• Help him see the light at the end of the tunnel. Many children put off starting their homework because they feel as though it will take them hours. Invite your son to set a timer for the amount of time he believes he can work without needing a break. Many kids find it much easier to start an assignment if they know they only have to work for seven minutes; in fact, they often find that once they're on a roll, they don't want to stop when the buzzer goes off. (I personally use this approach for exercise!)

• Don't be needy. He who is most attached to a particular outcome has the least amount of power. If your son senses your desperation about getting his homework started, you will activate what I refer to as "MOM TV", adding to the drama by creating some of your own. Remember -- he is the one with the homework, not you. While it is important to help an 8-year-old get his lessons finished, avoid coming across as needing him to manage your anxiety about his work.

• Incentivize. Humans are motivated by one of two things: a desire to experience pleasure or to avoid pain. Rather than focusing on the latter (which requires endless threats and punishments), remember Mary Poppins' advice: "A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down." Offer to play a few rounds of "Connect Four" with your son if he finishes in a reasonable time. Promise a cookie-baking session over the weekend if he manages to do homework all week without drama. While I would avoid on-the-spot bribes that are generated from desperation, I have no problem letting your son learn that good things happen as a result of fuss-free homework.

• Create an appealing space. Some children work well at a desk in their room. Others prefer being sprawled out on the living room floor. Ask your son to think about what kind of environment will best help him be focused and relaxed. Does he want to use noise-canceling headphones to tune out noise? Would he like to have a scented candle or quiet music in his homework haven? Help him create a space to work that is comfortable and inviting.

By letting your son know that you're on his side, rather than lecturing him for not being more enthusiastic about his school work, you can help him get his work done without the drama that wears everyone out. Best of luck!

Do you have a question for the Parent Coach? Send it to [email protected] and you could be featured in an upcoming column.

Don't worry, it's not hard, it's just about taking a moment to work it through.


  1. 1

    Understand the benefits of homework. If you're not convinced that homework matters, it will be even harder to convince your kids. There are some good reasons behind a moderate amount of homework:
    • Homework reinforces learning taught during the day. Some learning won't stick as well unless kids give it more practice and the classroom environment isn't necessarily going to provide adequate time for more practice. This is of special importance for math and critical thinking skills.[1]
    • Sometimes homework teaches additional skills not taught at school due to lack of time or resources.
[4] Somewhere away from electronic items, pedestrian traffic, and other kids playing is ideal.
  • Ensure that your child has everything needed to do homework, from pens and paper, to a laptop and books, calculator or phone with a calculator and be sure to get special project materials in advance, to avoid the excuse of "I don't have what I need".[5] Take a moment to sit down with them when they start homework to see what else they might need, including bookmarking quality kids' information websites they can use as part of their homework research tools, such as the US Kids.gov site,[6] and an online dictionary.
  • Invite or encourage your child to keep you informed about homework progress and any interesting facts that arise out of it.
  • 4

    Discuss homework with your kids in a direct and enabling manner.
    • Empower your kids. Rather than setting the time for homework, have a family meeting to discuss possible times. Let the kids feel they’re somewhat in charge by giving them the choice of when to do their homework—before dinner, after dinner, or half before and half after. The only rider on this is to refuse to allow homework to be left until just before bedtime – set an agreed cut-off point by which time homework must be completed; this can be sweetened by making allowance for fun reading time, or other enjoyable wind-down activity prior to bedtime. And you can help by keeping the evening mealtime as regular as possible.
    • Find out if there are specific areas of homework they're having difficulties with. Ask them if they would like to consider having more hands-on help with those issues (you, a sibling, or a tutor, for example).
  • Agree on homework free times, such as parts of the weekend, or Friday nights, etc., and allow them to plan how they use this free time.
  • 5

    Use praise to achieve intrinsic motivation. Praising work done well and ignoring or downplaying poor performance is an approach that will enthuse your kid a lot more than focusing on the negatives, and it helps to remove the tension for you, along with any inclination to tear your hair out.
    • Be careful when using rewards to spur homework completion. The aim is to rely principally on intrinsic motivators (fostering satisfaction at a job completed) rather than material rewards. Bribing is the ultimate demotivating strategy because any kid who associates completing homework with a new DS game or an allowance increase learns to do the activity for material gain rather than internal gratification, or for greater understanding.
  • It is important to define the exact reason why you are proud of your kid, so that she knows what to keep up. The idea is to "catch them doing something good" and keep noticing the good.[7]
  • Ignore poor behavior. When your kids don't achieve what they need to, avoid a yelling match. Keep your message simple, reminding your kids what you have agreed upon together when discussing how they'd approach homework and expressing both disappointment and a hope to see things return to normal the next day.
  • Keep real rewards simple, such as a walk to the park, a pizza dinner, spending time playing a game with your kid that you usually find too hard for you, going to the zoo, etc. This way you remain involved, your child links good performance with spending more fun time with you, and having fun as a family.
  • Don't carry the weight of your child's unwillingness to complete homework on your shoulders; provided you are giving them a supportive and caring structured environment, and you've defined daily homework times, homework not completed is your child's lesson in learning about self-responsibility.[8] After a few times of learning first hand the consequences of not completing homework, your child will soon start to see that he or she has responsibility in this matter. This is not the same as not caring at all. It is about taking a conscious approach to letting your kids learn to be responsible.
  • 7

    Let the kids deal with the consequences of not doing their homework. Teachers are usually not very happy with students if they don't do homework.
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