Monday, January 19, 2015

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Homework: parents' eternal struggle


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Just after work by my wife asked me to go pick up some pizzas. Tristan, my 7-year-old, wanted to go, and I asked him if he’d done his homework. He looked up at me and said, “no.”

Then he said, “I’ll get my shoes on.”

I supposed I shouldn’t be surprised by his reaction. Mel and I have been trying a lot of different methods to get Tristan to do his homework, and I think it’s being interpreted as inconsistency. Tristan is seven-years-old. He attends a charter school in Small Town Oregon, just down the street from our home. They have a policy at his school that if he doesn’t show up with his homework completed, he has to stay in from recess and finish it. We tried using that as a threat, and his response was, “I will still get some of my recess.” Then he went back to playing with his toys. We tried not letting him leave his bedroom until he finished his homework, so he decided to just lay on his bed, look at the ceiling, and hum. We tried not giving him any screens until he finished his homework, and so he started running laps down the hallway. We have tried any number of punishments and rewards, and mixes of both, and he still only finishes his homework about 60% of the time.

It was frustrating as hell and I wasn’t sure what to do.

I walked over to Tristan. He was putting on his shoes to go with me to pick up pizza, when I said, “Dude, had you finished your homework, I’d have taken you. But you didn’t. So you need to stay home and get to work.”

He looked up at me with big angry eyes, his lip quivering.

Then his younger sister, Norah said, “I finished my homework!”

Kids are jealous creatures, and I’m confident that Norah made this announcement just to aggravate her brother. However, even if her intentions were malicious, I couldn’t tell her, "no." As a parent I end up in these situations far too often.

“Cool,” I said, “Want to come with me to get pizza?”

Norah ran and got her shoes. It was then that Tristan really flipped his shit. He had his shoes on now, and he opened the front door, and ran out to the car. But the doors were locked. He tried all four doors on my little green Mazda, then he stood between me and the car door, hand on the door handle, waiting for me to unlock the car so he could sneak in.

I stood in front of the car. It was rainy and dark. Norah was next to me wearing a purple jacket and light up princess shoes.

I asked Tristan if he’d done his homework, and all he said was, “Please.” I asked him again, and he repeated the word. Then he kept repeating it, over and over. Mel came out on the porch, our six-month-old on her hip and said, “Just let him go. He can stay in and do his homework at recess.”

And suddenly it all felt like some strange intervention. The whole family was in the front yard, trying to talk Tristan down. Trying to reason with him. And I got irritated. It was ridiculous to me that we would go through all this over 1 hour of homework. So much of parenting comes down to this. Fighting over little things that someday will become big things. These are the fights that get blown way out of proportion and make me want to pull my hair out. They are the ones that make me wonder if I’m doing it wrong. If someday my kids will hate me for my inconsistency, or feel cheated because I wouldn’t do something as simple as take them with me to pick up a pizza. But all of these thoughts and emotions are always in hindsight, because in this moment, I was pissed. I was frustrated. Rather than try and reason with him, I picked him up, carried him, kicking and screaming, into the house, sat him down at the table, and said, “Whose fault is it that you cannot go with me to get pizza?”

Tristan wouldn’t look at me. He folded his arms. He looked at the table. Then he started crying and said, “Mine.”

“Yup,” I said. “You made the decision to not do your homework. And now you are missing out. Take responsibility. Get it done.”

I was gone about 20 minutes picking up pizza. The whole time I was gone I stewed about how I handled the situation. I want him to grow up and understand the importance of homework and knowledge. I want him to have what I didn’t. My father left when I was young. My mother worked until late in the evening. I didn’t have anyone to push me to do homework, so I just didn’t. It was a bad situation, and thinking back I wish someone had shown me the importance of school when I was young so I didn’t have to learn it in my 20s. But the real problem is: how do I help my son understand that now? How do I help him to appreciate what I didn’t?

When I came home Tristan was in his room working. Mel told me that he spent half of the time I was gone pouting, and the other half working.

And once he was finished and we’d all eaten and gotten ready for bed. Once we were all calm, I sat him down for a talk.

Tristan was in his underwear, wrapped up in a quilt, and sitting on his bed.

I didn’t bring up him not coming with me. I didn’t bring up our fight, or any of that. I just said, “Do you know why homework is important?” I said.

Tristan shook his head.  “I just hate it,” he said.

“I know. I hated it, too. But the thing about school is, you need it. And I will tell you why. If you don’t learn how to work with your head, you will have to work with your back.” I tickled his lower back, and he smiled.

I told him about the jobs I had before college. How I used to work for the power company and be out all hours in the cold or the heat. I told him about how I used to load trucks with pavestones while working at the hardware store. I told him about waiting tables, and being up late and having sore feet and a sore back. “I went to school for a long time. I did a lot of homework. And now I have a job that I really like. I don’t come home with a sore body like my father did. Or my grandfather. Now that I’m in my 30s, I don’t know if I’d like working outside with my hands and back. And I assume that I’d hate it in my 40s. I know this sounds like a long ways off for you, but the real work of your mind happens now.”

I don’t know if what I said made any sense to him, but honesty was all I had. I’m probably going to have to tell him this a million more times. But what I do know is that I was as honest as I could be. And once it was all done, Tristan told me that he loved me. I said I loved him, too. And then I tucked him in and hoped that he’d do his homework tomorrow.

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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress, and an angry baby girl. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His work has been featured in Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Fast Company, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter