Q: My kid (just started third grade) is going through a phase of just not wanting to do his homework. In previous school years there was less work, and he considered most of it fun, so it wasn't really a headache to get him to complete it. But now that third grade is in full swing, there is more work, and much of it is more tedious. I've always tended to let him make choices for himself and then experience natural consequences. Should I treat homework differently? Should I let him experience the effects of going to school without his homework in the hope that it will motivate him to do it, or should I sit by him each night and make sure he gets it done?
A: You and countless parents are in the same pickle, so I appreciate your question.
I will put my cards on the table: As a parent, former teacher and school counselor, and a parent coach, I do not see the usefulness of homework in the elementary years, especially before fourth grade. There is ample evidence that it is not useful in helping children learn the material. It does, however, manage to cause a great deal of parental anguish and resentment as exhausted children sit and cry over redundant worksheets.
I'm not a fan.
Though I've been lucky enough to have teachers who have made homework optional, easy and fun, not everyone is so fortunate. For a variety of reasons (old-school beliefs, school standards, pressure from administrators), many teachers don't have or allow any flexibility with homework. But it is worth asking the teacher whether homework is optional, at least for now. You will be surprised how reasonable many teachers will be when you say, "So hey, little Ralphie is miserable with the homework. I know he will eventually do homework, but I'm afraid this is making him hate learning and school. Are there any other options? Is there another time he can do it in school? With you?" I have yet to meet a teacher who isn't willing to work with a reasonable parent; any teacher worth their salt wants a third-grader to love learning — it's the whole point of elementary school. When a child is struggling, I always recommend partnering with the teacher to find an easy solution.
As for completing the homework at home, it's a balance between having enough structure that the child feels on track, as well as enough freedom for them to own the work. So, some children need far more structure than others. For instance, you may need a discrete time and place, movement breaks, and the use of something such as a timer to keep everyone on track. Though slightly arduous and a tad annoying, it is good for everyone to get movement and breaks. You are figuring out how your child likes to work, and everyone does it a bit differently.
Some children need virtually no structure, but they want you to be nearby while they work. These children like to check in and ask you questions as they work. It is easy to get sucked into sitting next to these kids, doing one problem after another with them. This isn't necessarily awful, but it is disconcerting to look up after months and realize that you now have nightly homework. This dynamic also can lead to chronic disagreements, fatigue, frustration, whining and giving up that will bring you to your knees.
Every child and every parent is different, even within families.
Your question about allowing natural consequences is an interesting one, and I'm going to provide you an unsatisfying answer by asking you a question: Do you think that natural consequences will compel your child to shape up and care about homework? Or do you think it will cause him shame and exacerbate his lack of interest? I don't know the answer; only you do. If your son has any learning differences or anything that would cause him to struggle more, natural consequences are not your best bet right now. If your son will use the panic of not having his homework as fodder for "never feeling that way again," then yes, let him go without his homework, and see what happens.
Either way, find the middle way between a total hands-off approach to his homework (because he is young and his executive functioning skills are still developing) and sitting next to him, cheek to cheek. See if you can be nearby, offering encouragement (not the answers) when he struggles. Statements such as, "Hey! This is good! Your teacher would want to know if you understand this or not!" are useful because then the homework is feedback in your son's learning, not just another waste of time. Finally, please talk to his teacher to see what kind of latitude you have; you may be surprised. Good luck.