I was chatting on Facebook with a fellow Expat in Sicily recently about how to make children do their homework. I actually don’t think it IS always a good idea.
Children need time for hobbies and a social life
When my son began school, I used all means possible to make him do his homework, despite believing much of it was not teaching him anything and that there was always too much of it.
He spent all afternoon doing tasks that taught him nothing. Performing 30 long-multiplication operations was not benefitting him, once he had perfectly understood how to do them. Parsing every single word in a 30-line story was not improving his knowledge of Italian grammar after he had already understood it perfectly. And writing out all the numbers from 1 to 300 and then from 300 to 1 felt like an inane punishment rather than a learning opportunity.
We have said since time immemorial that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Whilst engaged in all this bookish boredom, he was spending no time at all developing social skills or maintaining his physical fitness. He lost his once deep passion for recreational reading. He had literally no time for a hobby, despite his great interest in making movies and enjoyment of karate.
More importantly than all this, he had no time to relax, dammit. We adults know perfectly well that having no social life leads to depression. It does in children, too.
If I could wind back the clock I would be selective and only make him do homework that improved his understanding of something he had not fully grasped yet. If he had understood something, I would take him outside to observe a colony of ants or look at veins in a leaf or practise kicking a football hard and straight or read a great book about the solar system. Anything to HIS benefit. That is what I shall be doing from now on.
Children need to know the world doesn’t give you the reward you deserve just because you did what you were asked
I set out wanting my son to learn that homework must always be done because it teaches self discipline. That was why I created this reward and penalty system: earn pocket money for doing homework, setting the table and so on, lose money in fines for being naughty.
But I think that fitted in the world we grew up in, where you study and go to university and train for a profession and you are promised a god job at the end of all that. I did that. I got top grades at school, I went to Britain’s best university, I worked hard for the bank which hired me… then I got made redundant. I got another job and got made redundant again. And now I cannot find a job. The modern economy has changed.
Our kids are growing up in a world where you can follow all the rules and get little but disappointment at the end of it. The winners these days are usually people who create their own opportunities, make their own decisions and can cope with a world where promises are not always kept, and the rules are often broken. I watched a TV documentary about one of the richest men in Britain. He had made billions by opening a chain of betting shops. He said he knows lots of people much more intelligent and hard working than him, but who have little money. Why? asked the interviewer.
“The only difference between them and me,” he answered, “is that I take risks.”
So, now, I am trying to teach my son to make intelligent decisions about which homework will actually benefit him personally. I want him to learn how to assess, independently, how best to spend his time and where best to direct his energy.
The way I was brought up did NOT make me into the kind of person who copes well with how things work in Sicily. This is a place where you pay the water bill but still get your water cut off because your neighbour didn’t pay his bill. This is a place where you pay your council tax on time, every time, but the council leaves mountains of rubbish in your street because there is someone embezzling money in the local council. This is a place where your husband’s bank account gets frozen for 2 months for excessive unauthorised debt, because a bank teller stole money from his account. This is a country where the president can be convicted of pedophilia yet not serve the prison sentence he was condemned to serve, and in fact, still stand in the next election.
I think the modern world is gradually becoming more and more like Sicily and less and less like the orderly England I grew up in. The rate of crime may never reach Sicilian levels, but the predictable work-and-reward system I was brought up to expect in this world has already gone.
I feel lost, and cheated, and ill-prepared to cope with the new world order. I am determined to make sure my son can cope with whatever it throws at him.
Because the bottom line is this: training your children to follow the rules, and giving them a reward and punishment system, turns them into great kids who are easy for parents to handle. And after that, it turns them into weak adults who are ill-equipped to cope with the unpredictability of the modern world.