Homework is back with a bang, bringing with it the familiar sense of dread for children and parents alike. It encroaches on precious and limited family time and it can establish an unhealthy work, rest and play balance in our children. You won’t often hear someone say to an adult, “do you know what you should do after a day’s work? You should go home and do some more work.”
So why, knowing this, do we allow children to continue doing homework? And can we, as parents, just opt them out?
The short answer is, yes. Opting children out of homework is at the parents’ discretion. But, as one parent pointed out, “we are so conditioned to believe that we are in trouble if we don’t do our homework”, that parents don’t take control as they can.
“Empathetically, life is busy and more children than ever before are struggling with anxiety and we need to prioritise wellbeing”, says a primary school principal and mother. However, there is strength in the parent voice, she explains, suggesting that parents considering opting their children out of homework “bring it to the parents association. Perhaps if feelings are common among the parents, we as a school community, could review the current homework policy so that it would reflect the needs of parents, children and teachers.
“Teachers and principals need to remember that parents are the primary educators, as per our Constitution, and they can and should make decisions on what is best for their child.”
Marie Christie is a primary schoolteacher and a mother of two. She has chosen to opt her children completely out of homework. “I used not give an awful lot of homework. I don’t believe in it. I believe it’s extra work. Even when I had sixth class — let’s say if we were doing long division sums I would give them two. If you can do two, you can do 10.”
Marie says if a child can learn tables, and do their reading, that should be the priority, but adds that there is “a new school of thought saying, that’s not how you do it”.
“Nobody knows what goes on at home for children. You have children sitting in front of you who might not have had a breakfast. They might have had loud music from the neighbours the night before. They might have separation going on in the house. Nobody knows what exactly is going on in a house and whether they’re sleeping, eating, being minded.”
Marie’s personal situation is that she often has to take her daughter to appointments in the evenings “and she would have to do the homework the following day”. Her children are autistic and attend mainstream school. While her son Conor didn’t mind doing homework in junior and senior infants, her daughter Abi has always hated it. “When [Conor] went into first class I could see the stress level in him, even though he was very good. I always gave mental maths for homework as a teacher, but as a parent you’re going, ‘Holy Jesus, they have to read them and they have to do them’.
“It’s a different kettle of fish when you’re a parent versus a teacher. When you’re trying to actually do it at home — not that it wasn’t work that they couldn’t do or anything like that — but he was just overwhelmed by the end of it.
“Parents, I suppose are often afraid to go against the plan, because they might feel that the teacher might have a thing against them. But I genuinely feel that most people would be agreeable. For my children, my aim for them is to have them happy in school. My children don’t do homework, and absolutely, Conor, it has not affected his performance in any way, shape or form.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Education said “all policies and decisions regarding homework are school-based. Schools are free to have their own policy on homework” adding that “there are no Department circulars or guidelines regarding homework for primary school pupils”.
Tara Foy says parents are made feel they’re “actually being a bad parent and that you’re letting your child away with murder almost, because they’re not pulling their weight”.
One of the most important things we can ever do is genuinely stand beside our children and have their back and it’s a lot easier said than done
While Tara hasn’t fully opted her children out of homework, she takes it day by day and decides based on how things are going on any given afternoon or evening. “It’s going to take principals and teachers to go ‘you know what, we’re doing this’. Tough to the parents who don’t agree, they don’t agree with lots of things. But that doesn’t mean you have to bend to everybody. You look at the facts, you look at the research ... and you go ahead and try it.”
One of Tara’s children is dyslexic. “When you have a child, and so many children have learning difficulties, be it from mild to extreme, and when you have that kind of pressure on you as a parent to conform ... it’s very damaging to the parent child relationship. You end up fighting so much.”
Tara decided as the school year progressed that she wasn’t going to fight with her child any more. She decided to take the approach “whatever gets done, gets done”.
“I said to the teacher and the principal if there’s a problem, come to me, not my son ... please don’t pull him up, come and talk to me. I got the courage to say, this is not working for my son. It’s making him miserable, it’s making me miserable.”
Tara would also like to see an end to homework for her other children, who are not dyslexic mentioning how she can see “a little dimming of [another child’s] light because of homework. I don’t want to make those mistakes again.”
Psychotherapist, Bethan O’Riordan says “the message nowadays in everything in life is ‘it’s okay to be you’, but homework, in my experience working with clients, and opinion in having three kids in primary school, is that the homework doesn’t allow them to be them because it’s one style of learning and one style of teaching. It’s fine to say you’re not going to do the homework, but if the school don’t support you in that it can be really isolating and really detrimental to a child’s mental health.
“I get to talk with a lot of parents, and when children really explain to me what school is like, only then do we really understand the mental load that they’re under. There are so many rules and there is always somebody watching you to see what you’re doing or not doing. As an adult we never have anybody following us around. I either do my work, or I don’t do my work, and there’s a consequence for whatever I do.
“But there’s no fear of failing because I was really tired and maybe I didn’t prepare the dinner the day before and so we’re going to get chips on the way home. With the kids it’s huge. It weighs so heavy on the mind and they’ve so much to think of.”
O’Riordan says when it comes to homework, parents need to ask “well what do we want for my children? Is it that we only want them to be really academic and keep pushing them that way? Or is it okay that they’re these really rounded children where they have a few hours every night to do what they want to do — to meet friends, to do hobbies, to read a book, to do nothing?
“We so badly as a society want our children to do well,” O’Riordan continues. “But we have to really consider what being and doing well is and how we get them there.
“I’d love to see an end to homework”, she says. “One of the most important things we can ever do is genuinely stand beside our children and have their back and it’s a lot easier said than done.” O’Riordan says parents in approaching the school with the intention of explaining why their children won’t be doing homework can find the prospect more difficult than anticipated. “They come out and they’re like ‘I was kind of just a bit nervous when I got there, so I said ‘oh it’s fine. I’ll just reduce it by five minutes instead’. It’s really hard to stand up for your child, because it brings up all your memories of being in school and fears.”
“Kids really need to see their parents advocating for them, regardless of how uncomfortable it feels. There’s lots of talk out there about teaching primary schoolchildren to say no ... it’s okay to say no ... is it okay to say no? It’s okay to say no as long as you still do your homework. If parents can be really courageous within themselves, and not see themselves as rebels and going against the grain, and just genuinely knowing and supporting their child and advocating for them. It counts for so much within the relationship.”