The House Dad Chronicles: How I got my son to enjoy homework
I'm not a Helicopter Parent and have the bluntest elbows possible when it comes to pushing in front of other parents to get the teacher's attention, so I approached this with my usual insensitive style: "Tough. You have to go to school. Get used to it, son. This is how it is."
But my Working Wife is far more emotionally intelligent than me and suggested there might be a problem that he wasn't telling us about.
So, one afternoon, I collected him early, took him for a lemonade to the local pub and had a father-to-son with him. Was he being picked on? Did he hate his new teacher? Was he being ignored? He sucked on his straw and shook his head to all these theories.
Then he paused. "It's just..."
"...really, really hard."
And the penny dropped. He's in Year 3 now. The workload has increased. The expectations have stepped up a notch. Now there is homework and tests. And the fact is, he's been finding it hard. So what's a dad to do? My solution was to create my Housedad's Homework Club.
The issue of homework is something of a hot potato among education academics. Some argue that it creates too much pressure at home and leads to rows between parents and their kids.
Others say it allows us dads and mums to bond and communicate with our children, and are thus rewarded by watching them learn and grow.
In her book, Homework: the Evidence (for London University's Institute of Education), a few years ago, Susan Hallam looked at 75 years' worth of studies into homework.
She concluded that the quality of homework was what was most important, not the Doing-It-For-The-Sake-Of-It quantity.
She said: "Homework can create anxiety, boredom, fatigue and emotional exhaustion in children, who resent the encroachment on their free time, even though they think homework helps them do well at school."
But there's a but.... "Parents have the most positive influence when they offer moral support, make appropriate resources available and discuss general issues. They should only actually help with homework when their children specifically ask them to."
According to this excellent summary from blogger Soni2006, homework has huge benefits for children.
• It helps them to become self-reliant and independent by encouraging them to seek solutions to complex problems on their own, without the help of their parents (although parents should be there when the child needs assistance).
• It helps to develop analytical skills in children, giving them opportunities to recall and retain whatever they have learnt in school.
• It helps children to develop a desire to learn through positive reinforcement, not just from teachers, but from parents.
• And best of all, it helps children to develop self-confidence. By solving problems on their own, children gain a sense of satisfaction and achievement which promotes self-belief.
And that's the key, especially where my middle son is concerned: confidence.
With my son, my approach has been Small Gains, Big Rewards. He has gained great pride and joy from being able to get questions right at home, whereas before he didn't even understand what the question being asked meant in the first place.
In its guide Helping Your Child With Homework, the US Office of Educational Research offers advice to get your kids motivated and diligent. Most importantly, parents should show their children how much they value homework, as this attitude rubs off on them.
So I decided to convert the advice to Housedad Action.
Step 1: Set a regular time
Finding a regular time for homework helps children finish their assignments. The best schedule is one that works for your child and your family. What works well in one household may not work in another.
Housedad action: I drew up a homework timetable and stuck it to the fridge with a magnet. It's not just for my eight-year-old, but for his 10-year-old sister (who is brighter than Stephen Hawking, but bone idle) and five-year-old brother.
An hour after school on Mondays and Wednesdays, 15 minutes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and Friday night off.
Then, every Saturday and Sunday, after breakfast, we sit down and create our own Kitchen Classroom.
On Saturdays, my son works on his writing skills, reads a chapter from his book, writes a 'letter' to his teacher about the book and practises his spelling. On Sundays, it's maths – something I'm hopeless at – but where there's a WiFi there's a way. I found some resources online to devise an appropriate set of maths questions, in addition to his class-set homework.
It may be anal, but it seems to be working. My kids know what's expected of them and they just get on with it. Best of all, I know what to expect, so there's never any last-minute rushing around nagging and yelling.
Step 2: Pick a place
A study area should have lots of light, supplies close by, and be fairly quiet, says the report. It doesn't have to be fancy. A desk in the bedroom is nice, but for many youngsters the kitchen table or a corner of the living room works just fine.
Housedad action: My stepdaughter gets locked in her bedroom and can't watch any TV or play on her computer until the job is done. My seven-year-old sits at the kitchen table while I crack on with making dinner. I leave my wife to sort out the five-year-old with some much-needed mother-and-youngest bonding time after her hard day at the office.
Step 3: Provide supplies and identify resources
For starters, get together pencils, pens, erasers, writing paper, an assignment book and a dictionary. Other things that might be helpful include glue, a stapler, paperclips, maps, a calculator, a pencil sharpener, tape, scissors, a ruler, index cards, a thesaurus and an almanac. Keep these items together in one place if possible.
Housedad action: It used to be a nightmare finding a pencil which had any lead in it, let alone a pencil sharpener. Now I've dug three old sandcastle buckets out of the shed, stuck a name label on each of them, and keep all their 'resources' in each of them.
Step 4: Set a good example.
Children are more likely to study if they see you reading, writing and doing things that require thought and effort on your part.
Talk to your child about what you're reading and writing, even if it's something as simple as writing the shopping list.
Housedad action: Boring them with the minutiae of my tedious existence is easy, but I think a subliminal message is getting through to them: work hard or you'll end up like me, forever ironing pants. Like Hercules rolling a rock up a hill, destined to deal with a mountain of washing forever.
I adopted this plan a couple of weeks ago, and the results have been remarkable, not necessarily on my seven-year-old's academic ability or his level of brightness, but on his confidence.
He's gone back to the boy we knew: running to school, full of 'I can't wait to do this and that' jollity.
Like his dad, he's a bit of a control freak. He needs to feel he is master of his brief. And now he is. Helped, I confess, by the fact he earns 50p every time he completes a session. He may be lacking in confidence, my boy, but he's no mug!