When your children arrive home from school this evening, what will be your first point of conflict? How’s this for an educated guess? Homework.

Do they have any? How much? When are they going to do it? Can they get it done before practice/rehearsal/dinner? After? When is it due? When did they start it? Even parents who are wholly hands off about the homework itself still need information about how much, when and how long if there are any family plans in the offing – because, especially for high school students, homework has become the single dominating force in their nonschool lives.

Researchers asked 4,317 students from 10 high-performing high schools in upper-middle-class California communities to describe the impact of homework on their lives, and the results offer a bleak picture that many of us can see reflected around our dining room tables. The students reported averaging 3.1 hours of homework nightly, and they added comments like: “There’s never a break. Never.”

It “takes me away from everything I used to do,” says one.

Lack of sleep and lack of time were a theme, said the researcher Denise Clark Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and a co-author of the study, which will be published in The Journal of Experimental Education.

While the students didn’t report grieving for the children they were just a few months or years ago, they should have. There is something about that phrase – “everything I used to do” – that makes a parent take notice.


It’s not just the hours, Pope said. Students describe stress and sleep deprivation. “They feel out of control,” she said. “They often have no idea when a teacher will assign what. They can’t plan around Grandma’s birthday dinner, and it’s really not their fault.”

My students aren’t even in high school yet (my oldest is a seventh grader), and I’m not looking forward to the change. I don’t want them to give up “everything they used to do.” Already, homework struggles dominate many of our evenings. For some children at some ages (it has varied with mine), just getting them to sit down takes more time than the worksheets in their backpacks. For others, homework becomes an excellent place to enact a nightly dramatic rendition of “I Can’t Do It” (whether they can or not).

The stress homework places on families starts early.

There are parenting strategies available to deal with those struggles, certainly – but when, and why, did our evenings at home become so dedicated to that particular interaction? I’m perpetually dismayed by how much of our evenings is consumed by schoolwork, and at the end of a particularly fraught night – for example, when my two second-graders each have a report on a South American animal due, and are fighting not just over the homework, but also over their share of my coveted attention and my unique ability to download and print images – I find myself wondering how our family life would be different without the flash point that homework so often becomes.

For the older students who participated in the research, homework was a family flash point of a different kind. Pope and her colleagues intentionally designed their research and wrote their paper to focus on the voices of the students and on their perspective about homework, arguing that it is the students’ experience that “influences how they do their homework, and consequently, how homework affects them.”

Much of the pressure they described feeling came from their parents, Pope said, and a sense that if they didn’t do the homework, they wouldn’t get the grades and they wouldn’t succeed. For those students (no matter what their parents might say about the same interactions), homework is affecting their relationship with their parents and how they feel about their family and their place in it.


To take my relationship with my children out from under homework’s shadow, I have pulled back (way back) on any involvement, and we have made an active choice as parents to let the work and any consequences for not doing it fall to their schools, not to us. That doesn’t work for all families. It also doesn’t help when the sheer number of hours a child is expected to spend at his books is destructive to family relationships because there is little or no time left to spend together, particularly once a sport or other activity enters the mix.

Pope suggests asking teachers and schools to provide homework packets that a student can spread out over a week, rather than springing large assignments due tomorrow that can derail family plans. Schools and teachers can also help by building in time for students to get started on homework and ask any questions they might have.

Looking at the larger picture, she said, things are changing. “These students are already averaging an hour more than what’s thought to be useful,” she said, and teachers, schools and parents are beginning to think harder about what kinds of homework, and how much of it, enhance learning and motivation without becoming all-consuming. It might be easier than you think to start the conversation at your student’s school. “Load doesn’t equal rigor,” Pope said. “There are other developmental things students need to be doing after school, and other things they need to be learning.”

And if you are at the point where some of the pressure over homework might just be coming from you? “Don’t fall into the trap of parent peer pressure,” said Pope, a mother of three. “Nothing is permanent, and it’s up to you to remind your children that. We live in a country where you can drop out of high school and later community college and still ultimately get a Ph.D. from Stanford. At a certain point, it’s OK to get some sleep instead of studying for that test.”

And it’s really OK to go out to dinner for Grandma’s birthday. When do they assign the homework that teaches students that while work matters, family matters more?

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at:


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