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VOICES

Parent 'When she can’t figure something out for homework, we head into nuclear meltdown'

Mum Margaret Lynch looks at the debate around homework and asks if it really is serving everyone involved.

OUR PRESIDENT MICHAEL D Higgins recently made headlines when he called for homework to be banned in Ireland, saying “People should be able to use their time for other creative things”.

As a parent, I felt that this was such a welcome breath of fresh air. I have one child in sixth class and one in first year, and I feel like we have been arguing about homework since the dawn of time.

At its peak, I was working a job that was a 90-minute commute each way. I would drop them to the childminder at 6.30 am and collect them at 6 pm. And really, who doesn’t want to come home from a gruelling 12-hour day to teach themselves long division so they can then teach a grumpy, overtired and hungry child, who has never been more certain about anything as they are about the fact that they absolutely do not want to learn long division tonight.

The homework dance

I have since moved to a job much closer to home, where I have a much more flexible working arrangement. But it hasn’t made the homework dance any less tedious. My sixth classer is absolutely shocked and outraged every single evening. No matter how many warnings I give, or the fact that we have been doing this for almost eight years, it’s always the same story. One of her teachers used the phrase ‘passive non-compliance’ and it is an excellent way to describe her approach.

Instead of refusing to do homework, she agrees it has to be done. She is rational and logical; she understands. Then she disappears off upstairs and I only remember 40 minutes later.

I curse myself once I realise. I know better. She drags the bag downstairs and tips the contents onto the table. An open yoghurt rolls onto the floor. I ask for her journal and she pretends to look through the mess, in the same way  that I pretend to look for my wallet when the restaurant bill arrives. I refuse to look away because she is the opposite of every horror movie villain and actually stops moving altogether once I break eye contact.

We find the journal. At this point in the year, it has been carefully decorated with various fruit and yoghurt spills. It has an interesting odour and overall, I would prefer it not to touch anything in the kitchen. She hasn’t written down her homework and is as surprised by this development as I am. She offers to text her class, which could yield a response in 10 minutes or four hours. It’s getting closer to dinner and we both know I need the table cleared. If she moves the books upstairs to her room, we will never see them again.

The tension builds like the pile of empty Frubes at the bottom of her bag and I ask her to read a book until someone responds.

Her phone finally pings with the homework and we both survey the list in silence. It’s very maths-heavy. We could be here all night. She is adamant she has never seen these sums in her life, and the teacher has never covered them. I suppress the urge to headbutt the table and instead call my older daughter to help because in an unprovoked act of violence, they changed the way they do maths, and my way is apparently wrong (I am not sure it was ever right).

Brace yourself

The older daughter is in first year and hasn’t needed homework help in years. She gets it done herself, every evening. At her first-year parent-teacher meetings, her maths teacher noted that her homework is usually done before the bell even rings. But aside from gaining some admirable time management skills, I don’t see any real benefit for her (or the teachers who have to correct the work she flew through in minutes).

The work that isn’t done inside the bell comes home in a school bag which I have to brace myself before lifting and which has been responsible for the downfall of many hooks under the stairs.

I can only imagine what it is doing to her spine. When she can’t figure something out for homework, we head into nuclear meltdown levels. The kids have to have a certain level of understanding before they can explain to us what needs to be done. If they have that, they don’t need to do homework, and if they don’t, they can’t get the homework done.

Since starting secondary, she now has homework on weekends and over midterms, along with project work and study for regular assessments. Yet every time I hear discussions on how to get kids more active and outdoors, we never seem to address how much time they are spending while sitting down doing schoolwork, or how many evenings they spend alone in their bedrooms. We don’t question if this work will be beneficial to them in later life, or why we give up so many evenings to this.

Do they benefit?

The school day is so long for them as it is and already incorporates so much information that they will leave at the school gates and never use in adulthood (looking at you, long division). Childhood development experts say that a general guideline for attention spans is two to three minutes per year of age. So you can reasonably expect a 10-year-old to focus for 20 to 30 minutes, yet we are asking them to focus and re-focus for up to seven hours.

How much of the day can they actually retain? And then, while they are overwhelmed and exhausted we expect them to learn thousands of little life lessons too, like making friends, navigating friendship groups and learning new skills in the yard or the PE hall. They might not sit at a desk for the whole time but they are learning for the duration of the school day and they come home exhausted.

The expectation to then sit down and do more work very often pushes them over the edge.

For a country that has recently negotiated the right to switch off, can we not argue the same for our kids? Ireland has had a code of practice on the right to disconnect since 2021. This applies to all employees and provides guidance on the right to disengage from work outside of your working hours. It is not best practice, it is the basic standard in law, and a bare minimum to try and avoid burnout. School is already a full-time job. Why are we putting so many demands on such young minds and overworking them before they even start work?

Schools in Finland are miles ahead on this front. Although Finnish schools do not give homework, they lead global scores for maths and science. The belief is that activities such as having dinner with family, exercising or getting good rest are far more beneficial to a child’s performance in school, and overall mental health. Kids can help to prepare dinners, hang out with friends or read a book. How many more kids would settle down with a book in the evening if they weren’t staring at books in frustration for most of the day? And how much more would they get out of their school day if they began it with a fresh and rested mind?

Although an increase in school performance is hugely beneficial, we have to remind ourselves that it isn’t the end goal. High maths and science scores won’t guarantee happy adults. Unfortunately, we can’t do anything to guarantee the happiness or success of our kids later in life.

But helping them find something they are great at in childhood, or a hobby that brings meaning or value to their lives, is how we can provide them with the tools for adulthood.

Our unquestioning acceptance of homework goes against what we know about activity, exercise and even mental health. How many hours do we want our kids sitting down each day? How much time should they spend working? And how much of the evenings and weekends should belong to the school?

We have an opportunity to make things easier for the generations after us. And as a wise woman once said, “Don’t make unnecessary journeys”. This could be an opportunity to make a real difference, to remove something which serves no purpose, and to give families back their precious evenings.

Margaret is a busy mum, working and living in Kildare. 

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