My Kids Don’t Have Much Homework. But Even That Much is Too Much

Remember when everyone was talking about the over-scheduled child? I remember thinking: I wasn’t going to have those kind of kids, no way. I wasn’t going to be one of those moms, with a “Mom’sTaxi” key chain and knowledge of all the drive-thrus in my area. We were going to have family time. My kids were going to be able to chill out, to wander around the house unmoored until they lit on something they wanted to do. They’d hang out while dinner was being made and help clean up, rather than bolt a burger and dash off to the next thing in Mom’s (or Dad’s) Taxi.

I still don’t have that key chain and we’ve never been to a drive-thru (we very rarely get fast food, and when we do we eat it in the restaurant’s plastic booths. I have standards, after all). But I’m realizing now, this year, with a kid in fifth grade and a kid in seventh, that we are suddenly feeling over-scheduled.

And we don’t even do that much.

I tried to parse our schedule to find the problem’s root. Okay, so we have religious ed classes, on separate days. Big deal; that’s a drop off and the alternatives to doing it are (a) homeschooling for religion (not happening), or (b) ceasing to be semi-practicing Catholics (also not happening, for various reasons that are too complex to go into here). We have piano lessons, once a week. One soccer game and one soccer practice per week. One kid has a weekly Boy Scout meeting. In a couple of weeks, one kid starts a short-lived after-school art enrichment class. The other has an even shorter-lived commitment to practice with the marching band for the upcoming Homecoming parade. It’s not that much!

So if we’re not actually over-scheduled, what is getting our schedules in a twist? School.

Let me explain. No, let me sum up: Homework.

It’s not the volume of homework or the pile-up of projects. It’s the fact that they have it at all. It’s the expectation of the work getting done, the spillover of schoolwork into homework, and the evening-and-weekend-sucking projects that get me. Well, that get them. There just isn’t that much time left in a day, between getting home and sitting down to dinner. Everyone in my children’s (and probably your children’s) lives have expectations placed on them, and they all seem to come with the same (high) level of importance:

  • Their piano teacher asks for a half hour a day of practice, up from the 10 minutes they’ve usually devoted, and she’s not wrong to request it.
  • The (middle school) band and the (fifth grade) orchestra would really like it if they gave at least a few minutes a day to those instruments, too.
  • The fifth grade teacher wants 20 minutes a night of reading.
  • The soccer coach (okay, their dad) schedules one 75 to 90 minute practice a week, which seems like a lot on the day I’m waiting for them for dinner, but which really isn’t much at all in terms of helping get the team working better together, not to mention getting enough physical exercise. Because let’s not forget…
  • The government would like my kids (and yours) to get 60 minutes of physical activity a day.


And here’s the thing: I want them to do all of the above, and more. (I would kill for the 60 minutes of activity, for example.) But not until they do their homework. I’d much rather my fifth grader shoot baskets in the driveway or kick a soccer ball against the neighbor’s fence (sorry!), or my seventh grader master the scale he’s working on than watch them drag their pencils through worksheets or — in the case of the older boy, for whom all schoolwork (except for math, bless him) is a struggle — watch his stress levels rise in distressing ways before he even cracks open a binder.

The fifth grader doesn’t step off the bus until 4:15. Add up time for homework, reading, violin, piano and the mythical hour of physical activity and he may as well skip … what? Dinner? I require that they clear up the dinner dishes. Is it crazy of me to think that small contribution to our household (and to their future as men who know how to clean up after dinner) is just as important as the violin, or the reading? When does he take a shower? Brush his teeth? Hang out with a friend? Tell me a funny story about his day?

What happened to the fallow time, the time he might stumble on the sketch book I bought him last summer and remember how he was developing a series of cartoons?

I’ve found recently that my kids, particularly the seventh grader, are casting about for downtime, and not finding it. Why should my son feel like a stressed-out middle-manager? I tell him to get to the piano and he asks for 15 minutes of TV or one last game of solitaire (with cards, not a computer) and I can’t blame him. I find solitaire soothing, too, and heaven knows HGTV is exactly what I need when my brain is so full it’s spinning. And lately, the two of them have found a rare slice of common ground playing a FIFA soccer game on the Wii. Would I rather the homework separately or the video gaming together? Honestly, I’d rather the game, because they have so little they enjoy doing together and hearing them laughing rather than fighting feels, right now, like a bigger parenting triumph than an 86% on the social studies test.

So back to the homework problem. I don’t think they need it. I’m hardly alone (Alfie Kohn is the voice of the no-homework movement, of course). I interviewed Kohn years ago for a magazine article, and one thing he said has stuck with me. It boils down to this – for kids who understand the work easily in school, homework is little more than busywork. For those who don’t get it, it’s frustration. In our house, it could be either, depending on the kid and the subject.

What’s the solution? Ironically, given all I said above: I think it might be …

A longer school day. But no homework.

My fifth grader has a pretty decent day at school still, but even his schedule, which still includes recess and a brief snack break and a period of “specials” every day (gym, library, music, art), is stretched to its limits, given how much work they have to cover, and how fast. You didn’t get the math lesson today? Good luck, son – you’re moving on tomorrow. Meanwhile the seventh grader has no recess, gym on alternate days, and a bizarre (to me) period that splits band and lunch. That’s 22 minutes to eat lunch, followed by 22 minutes to get to the band room, unpack and assemble instruments, play, and pack it all up again. Just writing that gives me indigestion; what does it do to middle schoolers? This year is the first time my son has brought home more than one untouched lunch. “I didn’t feel like it,” he said mournfully. This child has not skipped a meal in going on 12 years. Not one.

His health teacher – in a class he has every other day – said, and I quote, “this is the most important class your child is taking.” I’m trying to tell my kid, when he has to work on a project for that class, to do it, sure, but maybe to prioritize the more important stuff like English and math and science, but this very earnest and smart woman also wants them to think about self-care and sexuality and addiction. That is important. It’s all important, and it (nearly) all gets little more than a good-faith effort, or sometimes worse, sometimes it gets short shrift or no attention at all.

Because there’s no time for it all!

So, my proposal:

A longer school day – say, till 5 instead of 3. Longer instructional periods, with slightly longer breaks between so kids can get to their lockers rather than drag heavy bookbags around all day. And whole periods devoted to music or art. Time scheduled for working on whatever the children need to work on in a given week, such as a book report or a science experiment. Also gym every day, and recess every day. And if a child is on a school sport, why not have the practice from 4 to 5, while the kids not on sports have free time, or time to work collaboratively on projects that they no longer have to do at home?

Do it all during that longer, but more relaxed, school day. Then the kids can come home and help prepare dinner, work on that C-major scale, draw some cartoons, read a book, jump on a trampoline, or sequester themselves in their rooms to play solitaire. They can go to religious ed class and show up to Boy Scouts without worrying that when they get back at 9pm they haven’t finished their math homework.

Too simple? Impossible?

What do you think?