PracticalDad Homework:  Helping Versus Doing

One of our mantras since the kids were very small is that all good things flow from schoolwork.  The school assigns a certain amount of work and our expectation is that it will be completed both correctly and in a timely fashion.  Well, it at least has to be done – and also turned in, by the way – by the appropriate deadlines; there does come a point at which the kid has to take his lumps for work that’s not right so as the kids have advanced, I’ve curtailed parsing every math answer and compound sentence.  But when they’re dealing with new subject areas or don’t understand something and come to me, where’s the line between helping and doing?

I’ve come to find the difference in:

  1. Is the child still sitting next to me;
  2. Who’s holding the pencil;
  3. Who’s answering the question;
  4. Are there electronics nearby to distract the kid?

So long as these four aspects indicate that the kid is involved in the process, then I’ll spend as much time as necessary to help get the point across.  In the case of math, I’ve even gone so far as to create additional problem sets and even a mock test.  But if I find that the kid is no longer invested in the process, then I’ll shut it down.  Surprisingly, when the kids – at least here – realize that PracticalDad’s done and now leaving them to their own fates, they become much more willing to invest themselves in the process.  It has led to some additional angst as we come to terms with the situation and there have been both times when I’ve gone back as well as other occasions when I’ve left in frustrated disgust.

Part of the homework process, if I think that I’m being abused, is a clear and repeated warning that if there isn’t immediate change then they’re left on their own.  It can lead to significant efforts at manipulation but this back-and-forth between recalcitrant kids and insistent parents is – I believe – a power play on the part of the kids to see just how much they can push the limit and whether they can manuever to their advantage.  Despite this though, the kids really do want to know that you’re involved and both interested and invested in their work.

The kids ultimately have to learn however, that if you’ll walk away because they’re sloughing off on you, then they really will be left on their own.  And for a kid, this is a scary place to be.


Getting On The Bus:  Did The Dad Go Too Far?

A recent Today Show Parenting article discussed the situation of an infuriated father who got onto a middle school bus to confront the bullies who were tormenting his daughter.  The question is whether he went too far and by the time I found the article, more than 2400 comments were in the thread.  I’ve been on the phone with my own child’s principal about bus bullying and can understand this father’s upset, but some comments and questions are in order.

  • First, let’s be frank and not confuse these youth as children.  The bullies – thugs, actually – were physically assaulting a young teen and humiliating her by placing condoms on her head.  At least some of the bullies were young teen males with access to prophylactics and there are frankly sexual overtones to this kind of activity.  I’d be furious, too.
  • Second, the article leaves silent the question of whether the school district and administrators were aware of this behavior.  Given the father knew enough to be out there, I can surmise that he’d heard of previous problems and that this was not the first incident.  But were the school authorities aware of the situation, either from the family or more especially, the bus driver?
  • Third, did the father enter the bus immediately after the incident or was his daughter out of immediate danger?   
  • What precisely was the driver doing about the behaviors?  The bus driver is an extension of the school and does have a responsibility to maintain order.  I understand that some children can be vicious little bastards and can literally make a busride an excursion into Lord Of The Flies, but that doesn’t absolve the driver of any responsibility.  In the past, I’ve known drivers to actually quit the route and immediately return the full load of children to the school for management by the principal; what was this driver doing?

Should he have climbed aboard the bus?  It depends upon the timing; if she was out of immediate danger, then he was – as much as I want to agree with him – wrong.  The immediate concern is the physical safety and the short term fixes are to simply remove her from the bus until the situation is resolved.  The later concern is the handling of the violence so that it’s stopped.  In this regard, the Sheriff’s office was correct in that they could also have been contacted since the nature of the harassment/bullying was so overtly sexual that it surpassed the school’s usual scope.

I suspect that the guy will be exonerated or given a very light sentence and given the fear of God.  I sympathize with him and in the heat of the moment might have even responded similarly were condoms involved.  And I hope that the actions move beyond just the father and extend to the thugs who would treat a teenage girl in such a way.

A Father’s Thoughts on Bullies

As a father, I’ve been concerned with how schools manage the issue of bullying.  The school system and I agree that bullying is wrong and we likewise agree that it shouldn’t be tolerated.  We even agree that the first response of a child being bullied shouldn’t just be to haul off and smack the problem child.  But where we disagree iswhether a child has any right to self-defense.  Is there a point at which achild can actually stand up for himself when the other avenues have failed?

We’ve taught our three children that they’re to do three things if they feel they’re being bullied.  First, tell the kid to stop doing whatever’s creating the problem.  Second, simply walk away.  If the first two steps fail, then find and tell someone in authority.  Many of these instances occur in places where there is adult control and it’s the adults’ responsibility to prevent these problems.  Schools are particularly sensitive to the issue and will actively take measures to monitor, control and discipline kids who bully.

Unfortunately, adults aren’t always around.

I was raised with the understanding that you might have to fight back.  We’ve taught our kids that if the three avoidance steps fail, they should defend themselves.  So I was surprised some years ago to hear that the elementary school guidance counselor had asked my son’s class this question:  How many of your parents have said that it’s okay to fight back if you’re being bullied?  My son and several classmates raised their hands.  Your parents are wrong.  If anybody is caught throwing punches or kicking somebody, even a bully, they’ll be punished the same as the person they say is bullying them.  One of the kids asked what would happen if they were outnumbered with their backs to the wall and had no choice?  The response was the same.  The counselor did provide the class with strategies that could be used if they were being bullied but the kids were left scratching their heads.  This, along with a comment that was wildly misconstrued by my son, led to a phone call to determine what was said and in this instance, the counselor’s original question was indeed correct.

I understand the situation in which schools find themselves.  Society’s violence level has spilled into schools and what we settled with fists is now handled with weapons.  If a child denies being a bully to the parents, today’s parents are more likely to support them even at the threat of litigation.  Combine these factors and school systems simply find it easier to adopt a zero-tolerance policy that punishes all equally, regardless of guilt or circumstances.  It’s the juvenile equivalent of the Second Amendment argument that when all guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.

So what can you do?  A bully will take over a child’s life and the bully must be handled one way or another.  Our kids have had to contend with multiple bullies, including a troubled first-grader who actually contracted with a fourth-grader to attack and beat up my first grade son.  In that instance, our son immediately went to the playground aide and all three wound up in the principal’s office to settle the matter.

  • First, pay attention and decide whether or not there is a bullying problem.  Some kids will share it but others will hide the situation. Learn the signs of bullying.  Likewise, listen to the names that get thrown around by the kids and the context in which you’re hearing them and then take an opportunity to visit the school, even if it means taking time out of work.
  • Second, find out your school system’s policy on bullying.  How do they address cases of bullying?
  • Third, if you think that your child has a problem, contact the school and speak with the teacher and principal.  To their credit, they will take it seriously and listen.  Tell them what you’re hearing and ask what they know.  What about the suspected child or children?  Any other issues?  Ask them to investigate and give them an opportunity to respond.  When the teacher knows that there’s a problem, you’ll generally have a respite window as greater attention is paid. 
  • Fourth, follow up quickly and work out an action plan.  Then share it with your child and pay attention.  If the bullying continues, follow up with the school again.  Delegate upwards if the problem persists.
  • If the situation does continue, decide what your response is.  In our case, a bully took over our other son’s second grade year and despite multiple conversations with the teacher and the bully’s mother – Dad wasn’t around – the problems continued.  After our son was bullied again, I simply told the principal that my son would defend himself accordingly.  The bullying did decrease afterwards and I then made it a point to share with other teachers and principals – when the need arose – that my kids had the option to defend themselves if the adults didn’t resolve the problem.  My wife and I made a conscious decision – and shared it with the kids – that if all other approaches failed, we’d back them if they got in trouble for fighting.

There might be consequences at school, but we’d work with it and they’d have no consequences with us.  Because when the kids are adults,they will have to manage these issues themselves.


PracticalDad::  Just Blame the Teachers?

Two of my kids are preparing in class for the upcoming state standards assessment, the one mandated by the Federal No Child Left Behind Act.  And as I watch them and their grades, I repeatedly run into the media flogging the newest bad boy for our national educational difficulties.  The newest group of floggees, freshly proclaimed by Newsweek, appears to be the teachers.  There are bad teachers in the schools – agreed – and it’s well nigh impossible to get rid of those bad ones – also agreed.  But blaming the teachers and their unions is simplistic and wrong.

I’m not a fan of unions in their current form as most are recalcitrant and prickly when confronted with any change to the status quo.  Let me use Pennsylvania for a brief example.  In 2001, the Pennsylvania legislature passed legislation mandating that teacher pension funds must be kept fully funded.  It was a worthy gesture, given that those in the rest of the workforce who still have a pension find theirs underfunded.  Of course, it also provided cover for the legislature, which was in the process of updating and improving its own pension system but they’ll never admit that.  Now shift to 2010.  The teacher pension – PSERS – is facing a large group of teachers retiring simultaneously and about 1.5 working union members supporting each retiree.  The fund has also been shellacked by the just finished recession and per law, has to be brought up to date by the state and the 501 state school districts.  Starting in 2012, many districts will find their pension contributions doubling and for some, tripling.  When my local school board voted unanimously to ask the state for help or relief in addressing this, the local union representative asked that they not send the letter at all.  Great, don’t move out from under the falling piano because hey, it’s a Steinway!

As much as that instance galls me, it’s simplistic to lay it all on the teachers.  The solution is as interconnected as the problem.  Poor teaching methods?  Yes.  Staff that can’t be removed?  Yes.  Outmoded equipment?  Yes.  But the missing key is, like the President says, the parent.  Do you review the backpack?  Do you practice the addition, subtraction and multiplication tables with them?  Do you hold your children accountable for their grades?  Do you have requirements on homework and studying for tests?  Do  you contact the teachers to find out what’s happening when there’s a problem, academic or otherwise? 

The principal reason that private and charter schools do so well, often with less resources, is that the parents are making the decision to send their kids there and that decision implies commitment.  This is important enough that we’ll spend the extra money and if we’re going to do without to educate you, you’re going to make it worth the money spent.  This should be the operative philosophy for all parents, regardless where the kids go to school.

There are any number of reasons that parents stand-off from the schoolwork.  Guilt for having to work away from the home, societal experts advising not to stress the kids, tired of the hassle from recalcitrant kids.  But whatever the reason, they – you – have the responsibility to push them.  It’s actually okay to tell them that they can do better if you believe that’s the case.  It’s okay to withhold privileges if they don’t measure up to their potential and yes, you can tell if that’s the case.  It’s okay to use guilt on occasion – I work hard to provide and it’s not right that you spend the time on the DS instead of getting the homework done – because that’s a way that they see that there’s someone else besides just themselves.  If the effort is clearly substandard, it’s even okay to describe that piece of work as crap.  Yes, I’ve done that and in the circumstance, it was entirely appropriate.

This matters because you aren’t always going to be around to pull their chestnuts from the fire and they’ll have to compete against people named Helmut, Sanjay and Addaya.  So hold the teachers accountable but be comfortable with the knowledge that you’re also holding yourself accountable as well.




Checking the Returned Schoolwork

Part of the daily routine – at least for the younger kids – is checking the homework that’s been returned.  It might seem a waste as the work’s already been turned in and recorded, but there’s value in seeing what’s been done.

In my case, I’m concerned not with the work itself but instead the process of how the work was done since it’s never safe to assume that kids just know how to do something.  There’s a process in taking any test or homework and failure to follow it can render all of the hard work moot.  Did you go back and check all of your work?  Did you answer the questions sequentially or did you jump around the page?  Did you have a test-race with Lily in the seat next to you?  If you didn’t understand the question, did you ask the teacher to make it clear?

Assume nothing since all of these instances have occurred in this household, and I guarantee that the landscape is littered with other instances.

As the kids age, they’ll squawk but learn until there comes a time that you don’t have to perform the post-mortems.  They’ll really stand or fall on the knowledge base alone and that’s the point of the whole exam.

PracticalDad:  Paying for Grades?

As more people strive to enter college in an effort to further their economic interests, the pressure is on for good grades.  Good grades for better schools and good grades for more scholarship money.  But how far do we, as parents, go to foster the drive for good grades?  Do we go as far as paying for performance?

My wife and I have opted to not pay for good grades.  Our stance has been good grades are expected because that’s just part of what they’re supposed to do.  Their job is their schoolwork before anything else – activities, part-time job, volunteerism – and that’s what has to take precedence. 

We know others however, who’ve installed a pay-for-performance system, starting at the middle-school level.  Their belief is that if good grades really do matter, then the student can best understand that by being rewarded for the extra work that is typically required to obtain the higher grade.  In this view, the prime motivator is financial, which translates into greater savings or buying power.  The additional argument is that this is a foretaste of the real world in which good performance is rewarded with greater income.  Additionally, it is positive reinforcement

While I understand this rationale, I disagree with it.  There are things that we have to do simply because they are what’s required; that includes doing our best in all facets, including grades and studies.  It is like the definition of character; doing your best regardless of whether someone is watching or not.  It is also one of the hallmarks of parenting:  you can look at all of the arguments and pros/cons of a particular situation and adopt a stance that might appear to be outweighed by the other positions.  Simply because that’s not who you are.

So we’ll continue to stress good grades and good effort.  And the money for grades will wait.



Is Tracking the Schoolwork Being a Helicopter Parent?

Schools have grasped technology and enabled today’s parents to keep far better tabs on school progress than any previous generation.  But does using these tools mean that I am a helicopter parent?  It’s an issue with which I wrestle since I’m aware that Dad isn’t always going to be there when they’re adults.  And this morning I opened the paper to a column by Betsy Hart, who’s thinking about how much she should follow the schoolwork.  On one level, I agree with her opinion that we should let the kids learn from their mistakes.  But such a course of action doesn’t necessarily help a kid learn the coping skills necessary in a busy world.

Her situation was different in that her child is in the third grade and the principal was discussing upcoming advance placement tests, which I find amazing for the elementary school level.  Parents were advised so that they could assist the kids in preparing.  My elementary equivalent has been a reminder that standardized testing is approaching so be sure that Junior gets good food and plenty of sleep.  But starting at the middle school level, any parent or guardian can both obtain the child’s homework assignments and follow the grade progression on a daily basis.  I’ve used it intermittently through the years but now follow it more closely.

Kids do need to learn from mistakes and some of my best lessons were from time management screw-ups.  But these were lessons gained in a generation that was less scheduled and with more parents at home.

Children are born with no framework for anything in life and part of our job as parents is to help them build those different structures.  This is no different for time management and organization than any other skill set.  But not all children are created equal in talents and some require greater attention than their siblings or other peers.  This is compounded by the growing brain’s re-wiring itself as it moves towards adulthood.  Attention will wander and assignments will repeatedly be copied wrong in planners.  Failing to monitor schoolwork can lead to greater heartache for the kid who’s foundering because intelligence is hampered by a lack of organizational skills; the reality is that a trait of some gifted and creative kids is a fundamental tendency towards disorganization.

With each of our kids, we started in early elementary school to walk through the backpack and take-home folders to see what had to be done.  The repeated routine of doing so helps create the structure that enables them to handle their responsibilities as they age and permits us to step back.  And our continued surveillance – yes, that’s the appropriate word – of schoolwork lets us assess how they’re doing and whether there are indicators of other issues.  But since all children aren’t equal in these skills, we’ve adapted the level of involvement to each child.  This ranges from what’s the homework look like tonight? to let’s sit down with the planner and the site.

But as I write this, perhaps the best route is to continue going through the planner but keep the school website information to myself.  And let the kid take the occasional hit when the two don’t jibe.  Experience isn’t always the best teacher, but it is some of the time.



Homework and Vacation

Kids are no different from adults when it comes to leisure time; they resent the intrusion of work upon their free time and especially when it comes to holiday school breaks.  I know a lot of adults who will procrastinate on the work until the last minute, but spending panicked time trying to accomplish something under a tight deadline isn’t a way to live a life and it isn’t something that I want for my children. And the kids aren’t going to learn a proper way to do things if I don’t at least sit down with them and work on how to manage time and work properly. 

And in the last several days, I haven’t served them well.

This particular break, the family had multiple activities planned – including a weekend visit to distant relatives – and we hit the ground running for getting into the Spring Break spirit.  Note that my kids are all still in elementary and secondary school and none are in college.  Kids came in the door and backpacks hit the floor; I did review the items that came home but didn’t press on exactly what homework was due on what particular day.  And the party commenced.

And with school in session tomorrow, we returned late this afternoon to find that there was actually a fair amount of homework still to be done.  Younger and Middle were able to get things done in a timely fashion but Eldest is still sitting next to me as I write, and will probably stay here until after midnight.

So what do I take from this screw-up?

  • I have to remember that time management is largely a learned skill and not something that’s going to come naturally to any youngster.
  • While there’s sufficient time available, it’s up to me to walk through the scheduled work with the kid and help them to figure out how to plan their work so that the late night extravaganzas are minimized.
  • I can’t just lay back and grouse at the kids when a fair part of the responsibility lays on my shoulders.  Kids learn discipline and it takes a large investment of time and repetition to get that concept across.


PracticalDad and Homework

Some important life skills come about through learning to manage schoolwork and homework – time management, self-discipline, consequences – and this PracticalDad fully supports the role of said work.  But it’s a bit of a trial-and-error process in the household since no kids are alike and the one might not be handling it as well as another.  So I have a quiet internal controversy about my role in managing schoolwork and how much I might be helping versus hindering in the long-term.

Technology has permitted parents much greater latitude than our own folks probably ever had.  School systems offer online programs that not only list the current student grades, but also offer teacher comments and daily updated homework assignments.  The message to parents is take advantage of the technology to keep tabs on how your child is doing.  Keep up with the homework and see if he/she’s missing or failing anything.  Stay on top of them since grades matter!

That’s true.  But how far do I take it?

At the upper elementary level, the students are given weekly planners for listing all assignments and upcoming tests and it’s my responsibility to review it daily and sign off to verify that it’s been seen.  Starting at the middle school level, I can visit the daily school district website to remotely ascertain what’s required for homework and tests.

And here’s where the debate arises.  Do I require my child to continue to bring me all of the pertinent work for my review after it’s done?  If so, then I’m assured that everything is being done and can be corrected so that the maximum grades are obtained.  I can also see what the teacher is covering and how material is being approached.  If I know this and think that some remedial work is necessary, then I know how to approach it as well.

But if I don’t review all of the work, then problems might be missed and assignments scotched with resulting poorer grades.  However, my child will learn the lesson of consequences better than if I review everything with him.  The simple reality is that I won’t always be there and there has to be a level of self-sufficiency.

So where do I balance it?  As usual, it depends upon the age of the child.

  • Younger children, through elementary school, have their materials checked daily and the homework is handled before other non-scheduled events occur.  This will include reviewing everything for correctness and completeness.  The thought is that as the child ages and is raised in a particular routine, that routine will hopefully be imprinted on the kid for the future.
  • When they get to upper elementary and middle school, I’ve taken to checking the planner as usual, but no longer review the assignments for completeness and correctness.  They should, by now, have some sense of what’s involved in reviewing their work and will suffer the consequent dings for not following through.
  • With one now in high school, and apparently in control of the coursework, I no longer look at things daily but will go to the system every week or so.  By now, we’ve thoroughly explained that the costs of college will also be met by her own efforts in addition to what we’ve been able to save.  We began this discussion when middle school commenced.  We’ve also continued our insistence that other activities and sports are entirely dependent upon good grades.

And I’m finding that I have to re-evaluate and adjust as needed.  Children are not alike in their skill sets and personalities and I’m having to blur the line as things continue.

Like the rest of fatherhood, this is a highly inexact science and I won’t really know how things went for quite some time.