How to Stop Fighting With Your Kids Over Homework
Is homework a constant source of tension in your household? Students and education experts offer advice to well-meaning parents.
Did you finish those math problems? Did you study enough for that big test? Why do you have a zero??!!
Parents ask their kids these and dozens of other questions about homework weekly, if not daily.
“Parents are very paranoid when it comes to homework,” says Rachel (not her real name)*, a freshman at Bishop O’Connell who, at the time of this interview, was still adjusting to the rigors of a new school. “They don’t always have enough trust in their children when it comes to getting their work done.”
Rachel understands that her parents are concerned about her grades but says their frequent inquiries and checking of her school’s online portal only puts more stress on her. She wishes they had more faith in her abilities. “Loosen up and expect us to get done what we need to,” she says.
It’s a common dynamic in Northern Virginia’s competitive landscape of high-achieving parents and high-achieving kids. “Often homework turns into a fight or a nagging situation or an attempt to overcontrol or micromanage,” says Miriam Liss, a professor of psychological science at the University of Mary Washington and co-author of Balancing the Big Stuff: Finding Happiness in Work, Family, and Life. It becomes a “negative cycle where parents nag, and children get frustrated and find homework to be stressful.
Then they want to do homework less.”
But what’s a concerned parent to do—particularly if their child seems to be struggling with schoolwork? We asked 15 local students, ages 13 to 18, and a handful of education experts for their advice. Here’s what they think you should know.
Your child does care about school.
Too often parents leap to the conclusion that Jack didn’t complete an assignment or Christina scored poorly on a test because they don’t care. That’s almost never the case, says Debbie Rosen, founder and co-owner of The StudyPro, a study skills and homework coaching center in McLean.
Assigning blame only compounds stress for students who may have undiagnosed learning differences or need help with executive functioning skills like time management and prioritizing.
What may be lacking is not the motivation but the strategy, says Rosen, whose own son was diagnosed with ADHD at age 7. Frustrated that the services in the area didn’t fully address his needs, she founded her company in 2016 when her son was 16.
Some students simply need an initiation strategy to get started—such as reading the directions out loud, highlighting key words or pasting the prompt they have chosen to answer into a Google doc. The key is figuring out what works best for each student’s learning style.
If you fear your child truly doesn’t see homework as important, consider having a family discussion about it, suggests Susan Kuczmarski, author of The Sacred Flight of the Teenager: A Parent’s Guide to Stepping Back and Letting Go. (Based in Chicago, she is also a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.) Call a meeting to “come up with a family set of values that includes everyone’s interests,” she says. “Parents might think it’s obvious, but it may not be to the child.”
While you’re at it, says Liss, ask your kids what they hope to achieve, grade-wise, so you aren’t the only one dictating what’s acceptable. “Make sure they have buy-in. They should have their own goals.”
They don’t want you to do their work for them.
In fact, you might not even know how. Some subjects, like math, are taught differently now than they were back in the day. “Sometimes when I’m doing math homework, my parents learned it one way and I’m learning it another,” says Ellie*, an eighth-grader at Dorothy Hamm Middle School. “So they can’t really help me.”
If you’re tempted to do your kids’ homework with them (or, worst case, for them), know that this can backfire. Liss points to a 2018 Frontiers in Psychology study that followed 336 ninth-graders in China and tracked their math achievements. The researchers differentiated between “autonomy-oriented support” (i.e., paying attention to children’s ideas and encouraging their homework initiative) and “content-oriented support” (offering direct help on homework). The former approach, the study found, “resulted in higher subsequent achievement” on two standardized tests, whereas the latter led to “higher subsequent effort, but lower subsequent achievement,” regardless of gender.
They may not realize it, but parents who step in and do the work are “communicating the message to children that they can’t do this, that they’re not competent,” Liss says. Such intervention can erode a student’s confidence in their own abilities.
Kuczmarski kindly but bluntly urges parents to get out of the way. “My strong feeling is that homework is between the child and the teacher and not the child and the parent,” she says. “If the child or teen is having trouble with homework, they need to go to the teacher. The beauty of this is that it teaches responsibility very early on.”
Kids can start self-advocating as soon as they’re comfortable doing so, she says—definitely by fourth grade. In the long run, it’s a critical life skill: “We don’t want them to go to college and call their parents and say, ‘I can’t do the homework.’ We want them to go to the faculty members and ask for guidance.”
Arturo*, a ninth-grader at Wakefield High School, notes that many of his teachers allow students to start their homework in the last 10 minutes of class. That’s by design. “I definitely find it helpful, especially for classes like math,” he says. “My teacher’s there to support me.”
The problem isn’t always what you think it is.
Missing assignment? Bad grade? The issue may not lie in the material. Sometimes other factors are at play. For instance, parents might assume the school’s online portal is easy for kids to navigate, and that’s not always the case. “Often kids don’t know where the assignment is,” observes Kristin Linder Carpenter, founder of Linder Educational Coaching in Arlington. If a teacher changes digital platforms or adopts a new system mid-year, that can throw students off their game.
For older elementary- and middle-school-age students, being aware of the school’s recommendations for time spent on homework is helpful. (Arlington Public Schools has grade-by-grade guidelines and is currently in the process of revising its overall homework policy.) If your student is taking longer than their peers to complete a task, be sure to communicate that to the teacher (this is a time when parental intervention is warranted). It could signal a learning disability or executive functioning challenges.
Yes, some students do struggle with regulating screen time and managing distractions, Rosen says, and they might be tempted to click over to Discord or watch a quick TikTok video when they are supposed to be working. “It’s like the dark playground for them. They’re on it, but they’re not really having that much fun because they know they should be doing other things.”
But punitive measures aren’t necessarily the solution. Rosen suggests asking your child what’s getting in the way of their goals. Helping kids to reflect on their own patterns is the first step toward changing behavior. If they admit to screen distractions, try creating separate desktop profiles for homework vs. fun. That way they’re “not actually seeing the [play] tab that may be the most tempting,” she says.
Factoring short breaks into study time can also be helpful. Dorothy Hamm student Ellie does so routinely and has advised her two younger siblings to follow her lead. “Never just keep doing it if you think you’re about to explode,” says the eighth-grader, who often goes outside or reads a book for a few minutes to clear her head. “Take a break and then get back to it.”
If they’re struggling, they want to talk—but not if you’re angry or checked out.
Yelling about homework never produces the desired outcome. Let’s say you catch Alex watching YouTube instead of writing that essay. Rather than reacting in the heat of the moment, try asking questions later, once the emotion has passed. It’ll be a more productive conversation, whereas putting your child on the defensive will only strain your relationship.
Avoiding accusatory or inflammatory language will also help your child feel supported. “It’s really critical to water the seeds and not the weeds,” Rosen says, advocating positive reinforcement. Instead of focusing on “the weeds” (what’s not working), try to find something good in what your student is doing. Compliment them on a strategy they’re using, such as making flash cards or trying to edit their own work.
Also, put down your phone and give them your undivided attention. “When kids are vulnerable with us, that usually comes at the most inappropriate or inconvenient time,” says Lindsey Thoms, who co-owns The StudyPro with Rosen and serves as the center’s director. “If they are showing vulnerability, be grateful for that moment—even if it’s past the due date and they’re deep in that hole.”
Nina*, a senior at Washington-Liberty, says her parents are often unreceptive when she wants to talk about her homework challenges because they are exhausted from their own demanding workdays. “I know it’s selfish of me, but I do wish that they could spend a little more time with me and try to hear what I have to say regarding school,” she says. “They’re very supportive with everything I do, but I wish they could be less dismissive because of how long their day was and try to be more understanding and just listen to me.”
The study habits that work best for them may not be the ones that worked for you.
Time management was always a struggle for Sally Sagarese’s two kids. The McLean mom remembers her daughter (now in college) doing everything at “the last minute, scrambling and trying to get the project done that had been on the calendar for two months.”
Each of her kids benefited from working with a study coach in high school, though their needs were different. Her son, now 18, has dyslexia and physical challenges with handwriting, so the written planner that worked wonders for her daughter didn’t work for him. He opted for a digital version instead.
Some parents—irritated by what they perceive as a lack of discipline—are tempted to establish homework hours or rules for their kids (e.g., no video games until your assignments are done). While that strategy can help some students, Carpenter of Linder Educational Coaching warns that others may need more flexibility.
“Parents forget what it’s like to be learning all day,” she says, noting that most students are “cognitively gassed” by the time they get home. “The process of doing homework requires a lot of different executive skills, all of which are in a weakened state.” Parents may want their kids to get on top of homework or make a to-do list as soon as they walk in the door, but kids who are mentally tired might end up spending their remaining energy on that task rather than on their actual assignments.
That’s not to say that structure won’t help. “A big part of homework is making it contained,” Carpenter clarifies. “Have kids plan when they’re going to be doing homework and when they’re going to be hanging out with friends so that everything doesn’t blur together—so they’re not doing inefficient homework for six hours while they’re texting. Blocking time for all of these things is valuable.”
Rosen and Thoms both recommend a 24-hour weekly calendar in which kids can block out school and sleep time and see their available “work windows,” as well as where they have free time. This approach validates a child’s preferred activities, gives them a sense of control, and often preempts family fights. It also reduces anxiety for both parents and kids.
Plus, there’s a larger payoff. Finding an organizational system that works for your kid is part of “the bigger lesson that’s wrapped up in homework,” Carpenter says. “You’re helping them learn to prioritize their life and their work.”
The sheer volume of homework in high school is a beast.
“I wish my parents understood the amount of time that homework for each class takes in my day,” says Nina, the W-L senior. “Sometimes an assignment for one class can take up all my afternoon, especially if it’s for a research project.”
Nina says her parents, who grew up on another continent, never had as much homework growing up as she does now. She gets upset when they think she’s in her room watching movies or “messing around with her phone.” Having packed her schedule with advanced classes, she often stays after school to ask teachers for help, but says her parents think she’s just socializing.
Given her workload, Nina sometimes can’t attend family events or must leave early. She worries that her parents think she’s mismanaging her time. She senses their disapproval when she says, “I can’t go; I have homework.”
Maddie*, a Wakefield senior taking multiple AP classes, says her parents don’t always understand the hard choices she has to make. “Often I have to sacrifice quality to just get the quantity of work done,” she explains. “When they get frustrated with me for cutting corners on assignments, they don’t realize that it’s either that or not turn in some assignments at all.” Ultimately, she wants to be trusted to make her own decisions.
When it comes to crunch time, don’t assume procrastination is the culprit. “It’s very difficult to get homework done in advance,” says Aaron, a recent Wakefield graduate, now a freshman in college. “Teachers sometimes don’t even [post] assignments until the day they’re due, so it’s impossible to finish anything early.” He remembers one of his high school teachers assigning an essay at 1 p.m. on a Friday with a surprising midnight deadline. He had to skip movie night with his perturbed parents, who assumed he’d been goofing off and had waited until the last minute.
The online gradebook is a snapshot. Don’t freak out.
If you log in to your child’s Canvas or ParentVUE account and see a zero or a missing assignment, don’t panic. “Always having that accountability of the gradebook is not the way to go, and that’s how most parents handle communication,” Carpenter says. They check the portal, see something amiss and text their kid. “That’s incredibly anxiety producing. It interrupts the child’s day and makes them more anxious and less likely to want to talk about concerns.”
The online gradebook may not even be accurate if the teacher hasn’t had a chance to record a test score or update a grade. And teachers do occasionally make mistakes. Carpenter advises parents to keep their oversight “less micro and more macro.” If you see a clear downward trend over time, then it’s a good idea to ask broader questions, like How do you feel about your system of organization? Or, How do you feel about the amount of time you’re putting into homework?
“Kids tend to be pretty reflective and often will volunteer their ideas,” she says, and collaborative problem-solving is more impactful and long-lasting than “receipt/accountability conversations.”
University of Mary Washington’s Liss remembers being tempted to check her high school son’s grades often, even though her conscience told her to let him manage his own work. “I was having a hard time with his need to be autonomous,” she confesses. “I had to take my own advice from books I’ve written.”
Talking calmly, she and her son negotiated a way forward in which she promised to review only his interim and semester grades. “The fact that he knows I’m not checking—and I’m really not—means he has to check [them himself],” she says, which supports his growing independence.
Conversations about school are an opportunity to connect.
All parents want their kids to do well, find their bliss and succeed in life. Homework hounding almost always comes from a place of good intentions.
Tough conversations can easily become adversarial, but they can also have the opposite effect if parents approach them with an open mind. “When I interviewed children for my book, especially teenagers and middle schoolers, they told me they felt like their parents didn’t know who they were inside,” Kuczmarski says.
She urges parents to try to “establish the sort of talk that’s about anything, really—from the silly to the serious. Help [your kids] walk down unknown conversational paths when they’re trying to figure things out.” (Recognizing that our educational system rewards certain aptitudes and learning styles over others, she also encourages families to explore Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, but that’s a topic for another article.)
If the mere mention of the word homework is a sore subject in your house, consider setting aside a weekly or monthly discussion time so the topic doesn’t dominate every family meal. This may alleviate stress while fostering a more open dialogue. Encourage your kids to use the time to bring up any topics or concerns they have. Let them be the ones asking for advice if it’s needed. (Side note: This approach also works well for college applications.)
Above all, Liss says, kids need to hear this message from their parents: “I want you to do well, and I know you can do well, but I love you no matter how you do.”
Amy Brecount White co-raised three children in Arlington and now coaches high school seniors on writing their college essays.
*For privacy, the student names in this story are pseudonyms.
→ 9 Things Your Teens Wish You Knew
→ The Case For Shorter Summer Breaks
→ The Homeschooling Option: Why Some Families Are Taking a Break from the Traditional Academic Model
→ Learning the Hard Way: Inside the Abrupt Shift to Remote Learning During the Coronavirus Pandemic
→ The Great Homework Debate: Does All That Extracurricular Effort Really Result in Smarter Kids?