Parents often feel it’s their job to get their kids to do well in school. Naturally, you might get anxious about this responsibility as a parent. You might also get nervous about your kids succeeding in life—and homework often becomes the focus of that concern.
But when parents feel it’s their responsibility to get their kids to achieve, they now need something from their children—they need them to do their homework and be a success. I believe this need puts you in a powerless position as a parent because your child doesn’t have to give you what you want.
The battle about homework becomes a battle over control. Your child starts fighting to have more control over the choices in their life, while you feel that your job as a parent is to be in control of things. So you both fight harder, and it turns into a war in your home.
Over the years, I’ve talked to many parents who are in the trenches with their kids, and I’ve seen firsthand that there are many creative ways kids rebel when it comes to schoolwork. Your child might forget to do their homework, do their homework but not hand it in, do it sloppily or carelessly, or not study properly for their test. These are just a few ways that kids try to hold onto the little control they have.
When this starts happening, parents feel more and more out of control, so they punish, nag, threaten, and argue. Some parents stop trying altogether to get their children to do homework. Or, and this is common, parents will over-function for their kids by doing the work for them.
Now the battle is in full swing: reactivity is heightened as anxiety is elevated—and homework gets lost in the shuffle. The hard truth for parents is that you cannot make your children do anything, let alone homework. But what you can do is to set limits, respect their individual choices, and help motivate them to motivate themselves.
You might be thinking to yourself, “You don’t know my child. I can’t motivate him to do anything.” Many parents tell me that their children are not motivated to do their work. I believe that children are motivated—they just may not be motivated the way you’d like them to be. Keep reading for some concrete tips to help you guide them in their work without having to nag, threaten, or fight with them.
Also, keep in mind that if you carry more of the worry, fear, disappointments, and concern than your child does about their work, ask yourself, “What’s wrong with this picture, and how did this happen?” Remember, as long as you carry their concerns, they don’t have to.
The way you can stop fighting with your kids over homework every night is to stop fighting with them tonight. Disengage from the dance. Choose some different steps or decide not to dance at all. Let homework stay where it belongs—between the teacher and the student. Stay focused on your job, which is to help your child do their job. Don’t do it for them.
If you feel frustrated, take a break from helping your child with homework. Your blood pressure on the rise is a no-win for everyone. Take five or ten minutes to calm down, and let your child do the same if you feel a storm brewing.
Set limits around homework time. Here are a few possibilities that I’ve found to be effective with families:
I recommend that your child be free to make their own choices within the parameters you set around schoolwork. You need to back off a bit as a parent. Otherwise, you won’t be helping them with their responsibilities.
If you take too much control over the situation, it will backfire on you by turning into a power struggle. And believe me, you don’t want a power struggle over homework. I’ve seen many kids purposely do poorly just to show their parents who’s in charge. I’ve also seen children who complied to ease their parents’ anxiety, but these same kids never learned to think and make choices for themselves.
I’m a big believer in natural consequences when it comes to schoolwork. Within the structure you set up, your child has some choices. They can choose to do their homework or not. And they can choose to do it well and with effort or not. The natural consequences will come from their choices—if they don’t choose to do their work, their grades will drop.
When that happens, you can ask them some honest questions:
“Are you satisfied with how things are going?”
“What do you want to do about your grade situation?”
“How can I be helpful to you?”
Be careful not to be snarky or judgmental. Just ask the question honestly. Show honest concern and try not to show disappointment.
The expectation is that homework is done to the best of your child’s ability. When they stop making an effort, and you see their grades drop, that’s when you invite yourself in. You can say:
“It’s my job to help you do your job better. I’m going to help you set up a plan to help yourself, and I will check in to make sure you’re following it.”
Set up a plan with your child’s input to get them back on their feet. For example, the new rules might be that homework must be done in a public place in your home until they get their grades back up. You and your child might meet with the teacher to discuss disciplinary actions should their grades continue to drop.
In other words, you will help your child get back on track by putting a concrete plan in place. And when you see this change, you can step back out of it. But before that, your child is going to sit in a public space and you’re going to monitor their work.
You’re also checking in more. Depending on your child’s age, you’re making sure that things are checked off before they go out. You’re adding a half-hour of review time for their subjects every day. And then, each day after school, they’re checking with their teacher or going for some extra help.
Remember, this plan is not a punishment—it’s a practical way of helping your child to do their best.
Many parents will say that their kids just don’t care about their grades. My guess is that somewhere inside, they do care. “I don’t care” also becomes part of a power struggle.
In other words, your child is saying, “I’m not going to care because you can’t make me. You don’t own my life.” And they’re right. The truth is, you can’t make them care. Instead, focus on what helps their behavior improve. And focus more on their actions and less on their attitude because it’s the actions that matter the most.
It’s important to understand that caring and motivation come from ownership. You can help your child be motivated by allowing them to own their life more.
So let them own their disappointment over their grades. Don’t feel it more than they do. Let them choose what they will do or not do about their homework and face the consequences of those choices. Now they will begin to feel ownership, which may lead to caring.
Let them figure out what motivates them, not have them motivated by fear of you. Help guide them, but don’t prevent them from feeling the real-life consequences of bad choices. Think of it this way: it’s better for your child to learn from those consequences at age ten by failing their grade and having to go to summer school than for them to learn at age 25 by losing their job.
I want to note that it’s very important that you check to see that there are no other learning issues around your child’s refusal to do homework. If they’re having difficulty doing the work or are performing below grade-level expectations, they should be tested to rule out any learning disabilities or other concerns.
If there is a learning disability, your child may need more help. For example, some kids need a little more guidance; you may need to sit near your child and help a little more. You can still put structures into place depending on who your child is.
But be careful. Many times, kids with learning disabilities get way too much help and develop what psychologists call learned helplessness. Be sure you’re not over-functioning for your learning disabled child by doing their work for them or filling in answers when they’re capable of thinking through them themselves.
Your child needs guidance from you, but understand that guidance does not mean doing their spelling homework for them. Rather, it’s helping them review their words. When you cross the line into over-functioning, you take on your child’s work and put their responsibilities on your shoulders. So you want to guide them by helping them edit their book report themselves or helping them take the time to review before a test. Those can be good ways of guiding your child, but anything more than that is taking too much ownership of their work.
If your child asks for help, you can coach them. Suggest that they speak with their teacher on how to be a good student and teach them those communication skills. In other words, show them how to help themselves. So you should not back off altogether—it’s that middle ground that you’re looking for. That’s why I think it’s essential to set up a structure. And within that structure, you expect your child to do what they have to do to be a good student.
When you start over-focusing on your child’s work, pause and think about your own goals and what do you need to get done to achieve those goals. Model your own persistence and perseverance to your child.
I also tell parents to start believing in their children. Don’t keep looking at your child as a fragile creature who can’t do the work. I think we often come to the table with fear and doubt—we think if we don’t help our kids, they’re just not going to do it.
But as much as you say, “I’m just trying to help you,” what your child hears is, “You’re a failure; I don’t believe you can do it on your own.”
Instead, your message should be, “I know you can do it. And I believe in you enough to let you make your own choices and deal with the consequences.”
For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.