Monday, March 9, 2009

Boys and Homework

A common complaint received in my practice from distressed parents is that their son is not completing homework. These parents state their household turns into a nightmare around homework time because the son does not want to complete the assigned task. And, even if the homework gets completed, for some reason the son does not turn it in!

Many of these parents have tried unsuccessfully to improve this issue by withholding privileges. Others have tried allowing the natural consequences to kick in by letting the boys fail with the hope that the boys will learn from mistakes. What are these parents to do? Should they back off and let their son figure it out on his own? Or, should these parents risk being enablers by taking a lead role in ensuring that the homework gets done?

To help decide what best to do, it is important to be aware of the “boy crisis” controversy that has been debated in our country over the past several years. The discussion of the “boy crisis” in the media became popular when Peg Tyre published an article in the January 30, 2006 issue of Newsweek called, The Trouble with Boys. She reported that “by almost every benchmark, boys across the nation and in every demographic group are falling behind.” She reported that boys are falling behind in test scores, overall grade point averages, and college completion. Boys are two times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with learning disabilities and twice as likely to be placed in special education classes. She noted that this is a recent phenomenon since thirty years ago boys represented 58 percent of the undergraduate body. Now, they are a minority at 44 percent. This widening achievement gap, says Margaret Spellings, U.S. Secretary of Education, "has profound implications for the economy, society, families and democracy." Concerns about the wellbeing of boys has been voiced by numerous authors including Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, authors of Raising Cain, William Pollack, author of Real Boys, and Michael Gurian, author of The Minds of Boys.

Not everyone agrees that the boy crisis exists. David Von Drehle reported in his July 26, 2007 article in Time, The Myth About Boys, that the boy crisis is a myth. Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Chait Barnett echoed this sentiment in their April 9, 2006 article in the Washington Post, The Myth of “The Boy Crisis". These authors reported that data is being misinterpreted and that boys are doing well. However, they are in agreement that girls are doing even better.

In response to this criticism, Peg Tyre recently reported in her May 29, 2008 Huffington Post article, Who Says the Boy Crisis is Over? , that there is a growing constituency of smart, empowered, and vocal women who are very concerned about their sons. These mothers do not see the boy crisis as a myth and are trying to ensure that their boys are receiving the most appropriate education they deserve. If there is a crisis or not, these mothers are concerned about the struggles their boys are facing.

Much speculation regarding reasons for the boy crisis has been made. Some state boys are victims of gender bias in education. Others state that boys learn differently than girls because of different types of brains. The most intriguing finding for me is from a comprehensive study by Julie Coates and William Draves published originally as Smart Boys/Bad Grades on and now presented on Coates and Draves found that boys are behind in school primarily because of the difficulties in meeting the teacher’s homework requirements. In their comprehensive and national study, boys were found to have great difficulty completing homework and turning it in on time. If homework completion was not included in the final grade calculations, boys would be on par with the girls in terms of grades earned. Based on this, Coats and Draves advocate that late homework should be accepted without penalty. They argue that behavior unrelated to learning and knowledge should not be included in the overall grade determination.

Given this information, what advice can we give parents regarding the daily grind of homework completion? It is always an option for parents to advocate for eliminating homework requirements, but in most cases, parents will not be able to change the policies of a given teacher or school. As an immediate solution, I recommend that parents become the guiding force in getting the homework done and turned in. This means that parents should monitor their son’s homework on a daily basis, ensure that it is completed in a timely manner, and then make sure that it is turned in. This will require checking with the teacher, checking on-line if the teacher posts assignments, asking the son lots of questions, hassling until the homework is done, and sometimes personally watching to make sure the son turns the homework in on the day it is due. This may entail much friction in the household with periodic episodes of uproar. However, if this guidance is carried out with love and understanding, as opposed to using punitive actions, the son will be greatly appreciative in the long run. At the end of the quarter, the son will have the assignments turned in and will experience what it is like to be successful in school. Once success is established, the parent can then work on becoming less involved. However, the parents need to be prepared to stay involved until at-least until the beginning or middle grades of high school. Eventually, the son will learn to take responsibility on his own and will learn to better organize himself. In the meantime, it is a good idea to expect lots of household drama during these learning years.

If parents take the alternative route of backing off and letting their son get the assignments done on his own, there becomes a risk that the son will dig a hole so deep that learned helplessness will set in. Many educators advocate for the use of “natural consequences” meaning that the son should be left to figure it out on his own. The idea is that he will learn what to do once he experiences failure. This is an interesting idea, but this natural consequences approach results in much tragic failure in many cases. In my early career, I worked as a school psychologist at a local middle school. I tested boy after boy who was receiving Fs. These boys were well-behaved, attending class, and even participating. However, they were not turning in their homework and thus, receiving Fs. This resulted in meetings with the parents, teachers, and boys. The boys would inevitably get a lecture from both the teacher and parents, but nothing changed. The homework still was not turned in. Many of these boys never did learn to get themselves out of the hole. The boys who did succeed had parents who decided to ensure that the homework was completed by becoming the guiding force. They closely monitored the homework situation and made sure that the homework was completed and turned in. The ones who had parents who stayed on the sidelines continued to get bad grades.

Some may say that helping the son get the homework done is enabling the son to become dependent upon the parent. To me, the first priority is being successful in school. Once this success is achieved, the supposed dependency can then be addressed. Most kids figure out how to be self-sufficient as they mature. I have faith that our boys will eventually become self-sufficient as well. In the meantime, they need our guidance and prompting. This will ensure that opportunities for success are available to them when they finally wake up and realize for themselves what is going on.