Not Until You Do Your Homework

On the surface, it seems like my husband and I have pretty similar ideas about education. After all, we met as undergrads at Berkeley, attended suburban public schools, and come from families where virtually everyone has a college education. But no. When it comes to homework — even in kindergarten — our perspectives are vastly different.

First of all, things have changed a little since we were in grade school. Every Monday, our five-year old  is issued a manila folder. Inside are four or five worksheets (tracing letters, counting objects, dot-to-dots, etc), sometimes an art project or other suggested activities. Taped on the outside is a pink sheet of paper with lines for the parent to sign, vouching that their child has completed the enclosed assignments. Every Friday, the child must turn in the folder with the finished homework.

I’m not really a fan of the highly academic, grades-are-everything method of education. But having been raised by parents who come from a Confucian culture where education is revered above almost everything, and studying is the closest we came to competitive sports, it’s hard to escape the attention to education that has been ingrained in me since I was in kindergarten.

So every Monday afternoon, as my little boy eats his lunch of macaroni and cheese, I casually unzip his backpack and take out the manila folder. I undo the clasp, feeling its heft and weight, hoping for an easy week. The first day, I let my child choose his poison. He usually goes for the Letter of the Week book. This week’s letter is Q, with Quentin Quail. His task is to come up with five things that begin with their Alpha Pal, draw pictures of them and write the words. I suggest that he begin by making a rubbing of a quarter. Quite excited, he dumps out my wallet looking for coins. But the rubbings don’t come out as planned. They are smeared, and you can barely see any of the imprints. He gets frustrated and leaves the table in search of some couch cushions to dismantle and jump on. So I let it drop.

Then it’s Thursday. Four o’clock in the afternoon, to be exact. There are four and 4/5 pages of homework left to do, not that anyone’s keeping track. But we have just returned home from the library, with a bag full of unread books and unwatched DVDs. I remind my son that he gets to play Webkins after doing a homework sheet, a little extra if he does two. But he is unmoved. By 5:30, I am too busy making dinner to be the Homework Motivator, and when the husband calls home to say he’ll be a little late, I can’t take it anymore.

“Exactly how late?” I ask, with gritted teeth.

“Just an hour. Do you have somewhere to go tonight?”

“No. But the kid hasn’t done any homework. And you know it’s impossible for me to sit down and focus on getting him to do homework when the baby’s bouncing around demanding my attention and making a big mess if he doesn’t get it.”

“Forget the homework,” my husband  says. Why not just drop the kids off on the corner while I eat bon-bons and read tabloids?

“But he hasn’t done it for two days! And it’s piling up!”

“He has plenty of years of homework ahead of him. Don’t worry about it.”

And that is how the conversation ends.

My husband likes to remind me that during the parent orientation on the first day of school, the teacher emphasized that we should teach our kids that the parents are not in kindergarten, they are, and that it is their job to do their homework, bring their show-and-tell, turn in their reading packets. But I can’t let it go. I feel like it is my homework. And since my child is only five years old, and barely understands the concept of responsibility, consequences or the value of education — it sort of is my job to see that he does it.

And on the rare occasion, when I throw up my hands, stop looking over his shoulder, and let my kindergartener do his homework in whatever manner he sees fit, the papers are returned with markings like “OK” or corrections on poorly formed letters, I feel like I have been given a failing grade as a parent. Okay, maybe not a failing grade. Those are probably reserved for the parents whose kids don’t turn in their folders at all, and bring their papers home in a school-issued Ziploc bag. So maybe it’s more of a C+, a passable job. Maybe it’s a bit narcissicistic of me, but I think it’s that little bit of nudging, bribing, and looking over the shoulder that separates the filled — albeit imperfect folders — from the ones that don’t get returned at all.

So after the kids and I eat dinner, my five year-old asks to play Webkins. “Not until you do your homework,” I remind him. Grumbling, he selects a counting worksheet, where there are three boxes, filled with pictures of pennies. The instructions say to read the number printed next to the box and color that many pennies. He quickly scribbles over the designated amount of coins and I log him onto Webkins.

At least the Chinese teacher didn’t give any homework this week.

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