Is Homework a Waste of Time?

From first grade on, parents put in hours each evening cajoling, encouraging, assisting, bribing, even threatening their offspring to complete reams of homework. It comes with the job, and though most of us grumble about it, we dutifully partner with kiddo’s teachers to get it done — even when it involves heavy doses of frustration that end in tears and meltdowns. Yours and theirs.

Most school officials will tell you the best predictor of academic success is an involved parent who supervises homework time.

Now, an upcoming study in the journal Economics of Education Review measures the effect of homework on math, science, English and history tests for 8th grade students in the United States. They used a method that controlled for student and teacher traits, and found that doing math homework had statistically significant effects on math test scores, but assignments in science, English and history had little or no impact.

What the heck?? You mean all that after-dinner time spent memorizing state capitals, slogging through Wordly Wise, and learning the order of the planets was for nothing? Well, at least some educators think so. And that may leave parents confused about the best approach to what often seems like excessive amounts of at-home busy work that sucks up way too much family mojo.

There is an upside to homework. It helps develop a sense of responsibility and self-discipline and teaches study habits and time management. School age kids need to gain problem solving skills, and working independently at home kicks off that process.

Since it’s unlikely your kiddo’s teacher is going to throw in the towel on homework anytime soon, here are some suggestions for finding some sane middle ground.

Keep a tally of how much time he actually spends. What’s reasonable for a first grader is far less than for a middle-schooler, but you won’t know if you don’t track it. And the time spent jumping up to check out the fridge for a snack in between doesn’t count.

Set a homework limit that’s age-appropriate. Primary grades 1-3 shouldn’t require more than 30 minutes a night. That may increase to an hour by 6th grade, but if your child is taking much longer, cut it off and discuss your concerns with the teacher.

Reading is the best homework ever — at least 10 minutes a day. That’s included in the total time, but don’t let it be the time you give up. It’s way more valuable than the spelling drill. The best students are reading lovers.

Focus on building study skills. Learning how to get the job done effectively is at least as important as the assignment at hand. A kid who knows how to study will be able to work independently for an educational lifetime.

Avoid frustration escalation. If you see your child starting to spiral into meltdown mode, end the homework session. Pick it up later when things calm down, or let it go and reach out to the teacher for helpful strategies for the future.

Your child is accountable for homework, not you. Make this your mantra, and repeat it as often as necessary. That includes science projects and anything that involves foam board and clip art.

Keep your sense of humor. Your kiddo will have homework that you are clueless about, I guarantee it. And it will come sooner than you think. I remember one night when Husband and I were up way past our bedtime working on an extra credit math problem. We just couldn’t give up. The child in question was in 4th grade.  All these years later it’s become one of those funny, “Remember when Mom and Dad …” stories.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?


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One response to “Is Homework a Waste of Time?”

  1. Ellen Schrier

    Great! Please do, we’re glad you found us. And feel free to ask us any burning questions relating to child rearing that you may have!

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