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The Same But Different

with Susan Wagner

Susan Wagner is a freelance writer and editor, an avid runner and a mom of two boys. She's tentatively navigating the teen years with her oldest son, who has ADHD and an anxiety disorder (because puberty isn't hard enough already). [Insert blog name here] chronicles her efforts to balance science homework, basketball practice and panic attacks without completely losing her mind. Follow Susan on Twitter and Instagram (@workingcloset) and at her personal blog, The Working Closet

My Communist Approach to Kid’s Homework

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My Motto: “From Each According to His Ability, to Each According to His Need”

I like to believe that I don’t ever help my kids with their homework, although that’s only half true and really depends on how we are defining “help.” I never cross the line into actually doing the work for them or telling them the answers, although the temptation is often there, particularly at the end of a long day or a long project or both.

But I always resist. Because, as I like to remind the boys, this is their homework, not mine. I’ve done middle school English/math/social studies/whatever and I’m not required to do it again. Thank goodness.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t help at all. And it doesn’t mean that I offer both kids the same kind of help.

Last week, I helped Charlie memorize the preamble to the Constitution. My help consisted of two specific things: finding the Schoolhouse Rock video for him on YouTube and listening to him recite the whole thing over and over once he had learned the words. (I also encouraged him to sing it for his teacher, rather than simply reciting, but he had no interest in that, which is kind of a bummer because how awesome would that have been??? So awesome.) My help was so minimal, in fact, that even he didn’t realize I was helping, which is exactly how it should be. For him, at least.

This week, I helped Henry pull together the outline and bibliography for his English research paper on China. In this case, helping meant assisting him to find his note cards (which were under his bed and no I do not know why or how they got there), high-fiving him for doing his own typing and then sending him to bed when he came and laid on the floor and moaned about how he was too tired to add the page numbers. And then, in the morning, I typed his bibliography for him because of course he forgot to save it the last time he typed it and honestly, I had too many other things to do to manage the panic attack he would certainly have if he’d had to type it himself at 7:00 am. Because in the end, helping Henry with schoolwork is all about picking the right battles — for him and for me.

My approach to homework help can be summed up in the words of Karl Marx: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” While I am more than able to manage middle school academic work, my kids each have different needs when it comes to homework assistance. And so I tailor my “help” to the specific child rather than the work he is doing.

Charlie needs very little help with his schoolwork; at the most, he will ask for a sounding board, to verify his answers or double check that he’s done everything. On the whole, though, he wants to do it all himself, which means that instead of lamenting about a project he just goes and does it. This week, at a late night baseball game, another parent asked me if he had finished his book report and I nearly had a stroke because WHAT BOOK REPORT THERE IS A BOOK REPORT I DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT THE BOOK REPORT OMG WE WILL BE UP ALL NIGHT DOING THE DAMN BOOK REPORT!!! But when I asked Charlie, he said, “Mom, I’m done. I worked on it at school.” And then he added, “I mean, she assigned it like three months ago. Why wouldn’t I have it done?”

Well, honestly, because your brother wouldn’t. That’s why.

Henry is a procrastinator. He will wait until after dinner to start his homework and until the last day to start any big project. This makes me crazy, even though I totally get it: I also procrastinate things I am anxious about, despite knowing all too well that this approach only creates more anxiety. My goal this year has been to let go and let God when it comes to homework — if he’s not going to crack a book until 7:00 pm and if he’s going to take a 20 minute break after every 15 minute stretch of work, then he might still be doing homework at bedtime. Whatever. It’s his grade, not mine.

But how about that bit where I admitted to typing his bibliography for him? Doesn’t that cross my imaginary line between helping and doing it for you? Yes it does, and I can say with certainty that I would never do that for Charlie. And not just because he wouldn’t let me. Henry has a specific set of things he struggles with, and typing is one of them. He’s a mediocre typist at best, and when he’s panicking, he’s a mess. But because of his dysgraphia, it’s better if he types pretty much everything. And so, more often than I would like, I wind up sitting at the keyboard taking dictation from him. And while I will not find the words for him, I will transcribe what he tells me to write, and then he will edit it and finish what would otherwise be an unfinished paper. Every time.

In the end, it’s just like Marx said: I have the ability, he has the need.

I see homework as an opportunity for my boys to learn about learning. Charlie has figured out how to balance his time and how to follow directions and how to stay organized; Henry is discovering when and how his various issues get in the way of his academic work. They need very different kinds of assistance during the homework hour, and I’m able to provide it, even though I still maintain that I am not helping with the actual homework.

Do you help with homework? If so, what’s your definition of “help?” And do all of your kids get the same type of help from you, or are you tailoring it to their specific needs?



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