By Joseph Sacks, LCSW
The following is based on my teaching and psychotherapy experience, extensive research, and my experience raising and educating my own four boys.
When considering “Is homework harmful or helpful?” we need to realize that the amount of homework that is assigned generally in schools has greatly increased in recent years.
When I was in school we were assigned 20 to 30 minutes of homework per day and nothing on weekends or vacations. But now, kids get a couple of hours of homework per day and lots of weekend and vacation homework. The age at which homework begins to be assigned has gotten much younger as well. Some schools, unthinkably, even give homework in kindergarten and pre-K!
So Is Homework Harmful Or Helpful After All?
All of this may seem like a positive development. It seems logical that more homework equals more learning, more knowledge, and more academic achievement. However the truth, curiously, turns out to be quite different. All the research has demonstrated that increased homework does not provide any academic or intellectual benefit! Neither does it increase a sense of responsibility, independence or study skills. Education expert Alfie Kohn in his book The Homework Myth quotes and discusses this research at length. The truth is, excessive homework can actually harm your child's life long academic achievement!
The question is why? Why is homework so unhelpful?
To answer this question we need to understand the human learning and discipline experience, especially as it applies to young children.
Learning is in some ways like exercise. To be a successful athlete you need to work out gradually to build up strength. Working out too hard, too fast, can lead to soreness and injury and will frustrate achievement of your goal. The body can't handle it. In addition, working out too hard makes the exercise unpleasant and can create a negative association between the displeasure of the excessive workout and the exercise itself. This lack of pleasure will cause the person to lose motivation to continue exercising. It is more successful when done in a pleasant way. It is much more motivating to run for an hour during a soccer game then to run for an hour on the treadmill.
Learning is the same way.
We can only introduce children to study gradually and in a pleasant way, so that they slowly assimilate the act into their lives and don't get overworked and burnt out. It is critical to remember this point! Too much schoolwork, especially too soon, creates a negative association between the displeasure of the excessive schoolwork and the schoolwork itself, leading the child to dislike the experience, lose motivation and ultimately learn much less.
Of equal importance, love of schoolwork and absence of negative associations may positively affect one’s professional success! Motivational and efficiency writer Robert Molloy teaches that the surest way for a person to love and appreciate hard work in his professional life is to have loved schoolwork as a student. If one associates schoolwork and work in general as drudgery, she or he will not look forward to getting down to work in her chosen profession. In that many people now feel that the major purpose of education is as a preparation for professional life, the enjoyment of schoolwork continues to be a critical consideration.
So, let's say a particular child needs optimally six hours of schoolwork per day, administered in an interesting, pressure-free, and pleasant way. As such he will achieve a respectable amount and still enjoy learning. It will create a positive association between the pleasure of the learning process and the schoolwork itself, and the child will be motivated to eventually learn more and more, even on his own. This will lead to a successful academic as well as professional career.
But if you take that same child and give him, say, seven hours of school work per day, it will be too much. Not only will he not enjoy that extra hour, it will spoil his enjoyment of the entire seven hours! That extra bit of time and pressure pushed him beyond his comfort zone. Now we are creating a negative association between the displeasure of being forced to work and the schoolwork itself. Resentment will build up and he will learn to dislike schoolwork and even hate it. He may nevertheless obey and comply by simply forcing himself for years to do his work, but this is very unhealthy, and when he is done with school he will avoid new learning, and may even have negative associations with working hard at his career.
Contrary to popular belief, the practice of forcing yourself to do what you don't want to do is not a virtue that leads to success! It just makes a person miserable and frustrated. Honoring your own desires, following your bliss and finding interest in your activities is the path to lifetime achievement and success. Generally the more successful and happy people are those who enjoy what they do.
Less is More
Therefore giving children more schoolwork then an optimal amount is harmful and counterproductive. It is much more educational to give a child six hours of schoolwork that he enjoys than 10 hours that he dislikes, even if during that 10 hours he seems to be objectively assimilating more material. When he gets too much, he's missing out on the single most important goal of all education and that is the habit of enjoying learning! The only question we should ask each school year is, did my child learn to enjoy his studies? Did he get pleasure and interest out of learning? If the answer is no, we may be doing more harm than good.
For a detailed discussion of the miraculous benefits of joy in learning, click here.
Unfortunately today, most of the homework assigned lies well above that optimal amount of schoolwork that every child needs to thrive. That is why it is counterproductive, and that is why the research indicates that it does not result in better learning! In short, too much homework teaches children to hate learning and academics. It reduces their motivation to study on their own. It takes the pleasure out of learning and causes tremendous unhappiness.
Moreover, excessive homework is the source of much conflict between parents and children. Maintaining a warm, pleasant, parent-child relationship is more important to your child's well-being than academics! So sacrificing the quality of that important relationship in the name of some dubious academic benefit surely doesn't make sense.
Furthermore too much homework takes away a child's family, play and leisure activities. Play is extremely important to children's emotional development. They need several hours of fun every day in order to grow up healthily. Too much homework deprives them of this essential!
I know there are many teachers who would be very unhappy to hear these words, but we must remember it is the educational and emotional benefit of the children that is paramount, not making the teacher happy!
So What Should I Do?
Parents today are truly in a very tough position regarding homework. When I was growing up, it accounted for 10 to 20 percent of your grade, so if you did none of it you could still get a B. Now, some schools have it set up that if you don't do homework you completely fail. This puts the parents under tremendous pressure to force their children to produce academically. So although ideally children would be much better off with only a little bit of homework, especially in the younger grades, nowadays that is unrealistic, and most children are burdened with lengthy assignments. However there are a few things we can do to ease the burden. We can ask the teachers to assign less homework. Don't be afraid of them, remember they're working for you! I can intervene with teachers for you to reduce homework, it has been done successfully in the past. In addition we need to try to make the homework experience as easy and pleasant as possible. Help your children with their homework as much as you can. Don't fear that they won't learn independence, as the less homework they do, the more they’ll be motivated to learn independently. One more trick is to give treats while they’re doing homework. The pleasure they get from the treats gives them the strength to persevere through their work. It creates a positive association between the pleasure from the snacks and the homework itself. Finally, when a child gets really frustrated and bogged down don't be afraid to let him slide and skip some of his homework. The benefits to his emotional health will greatly outweigh any harm done to his grade.
So what is the alternative to homework?
What is the path to teach our children lifelong academic, career and intellectual success? The answer is we need to teach our children to enjoy learning. We need to teach them to appreciate the bliss of acquiring knowledge, the pleasure of study. It must be done very gradually and gently. This will ensure that they become avid self-motivated learners and the habit of pursuing what they enjoy will spill over into all their other endeavors, including their careers, leading to lifelong success.
Therefore, try to find some topics that you child enjoys and encourage him to pursue them for their own sake. Getting a child to enjoy studying a particular topic, even a little bit, is more of an academic achievement than many good grades and tests scores. Enthusiasm for learning in a young child is like a small flame that must be carefully nurtured into a roaring fire of achievement.
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If you are facing challenges educating your child because you are puzzled by the question, “Is homework harmful or helpful”,
and would like guidance or treatment from a child psychotherapist in lower Manhattan, you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!