In Defense of Homework Helpers

What Women Really Think
Nov. 24 2010 3:49 PM

In Defense of Homework Helpers

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The debate over homework helpers came, for me, at an opportune moment. KJ posted her thoughtful meditation just as I was driving back from an appointment with a very nice, very insightful woman who, after interviewing both me and my son, is going to select my son's ... homework helper.

We are referring to this person as an organizational tutor, and I am very willing to defend this effort. I don't care if anybody thinks I am hyper-parenting or helicopter parenting or wasting my money. I really could not care less what anybody thinks. The older I get the more I am unmoved by helicopter parenting essays, like the recent one by Katie Roiphe or the earlier one by Erica Jong or the 25 earlier ones before that. People, mostly mothers, mostly well-off mothers, have been writing this same essay for two decades now. I don't think helicopter parenting is quite the public menace people think it is. Like Debra , I worry a lot more about parents who neglect or lack the wherewithal or ability or job flexibility to help or spend time with their children. Also resonant is DoubleX 's post from Dave Cullen , urging parents to take seriously adolescent depression, something you can do only if you are paying rather close attention to your child's well-being. With kids in middle school and high school, I find, parenting is an endless balance--giving them space and independence, but also giving them, when they need it, attention and help.

Contrary to that New York Times piece , I don't think organizational tutors or homework helpers are confined to Manhattan. I've been seeing advertisements for them in the parenting papers here in the Washington, D.C., area for years. And now I understand why: Even more than elementary school, middle school is one endless series of stuff to keep track of. The tipoff comes when you get the beginning-of-year supplies list and see that kids are required to purchase massive binders in which they have to corral an unholy assortment of notebooks, dividers, pencil cases, graph paper, notebook paper, pocket folders (to house vast quantities of worksheets, for teachers who prefer that the worksheets be kept in folders), calculators, hole-punchers, flash drives, tiny staplers (to staple the worksheets into composition notebooks, for teachers who prefer that the worksheets NOT be kept in folders), and inches-thick daily planners. For some kids--like my daughter, our firstborn--maintaining a tidy binder is as easy as meticulously organizing her nail polish bottles. For others--like her younger brother--it's harder. Last year, in sixth grade, his binder when opened was a formidable tower of crumpled papers. This year, like a skyscraper under long-term construction, it seems to have gotten taller. He's got a great and truly sophisticated mind, but he's 12, for God's sake, and his organizational skills are nascent.

And the thing is, organization matters. I may have had homework in my own public middle school lo these many years ago, but if I did, I cannot remember it. My son not only has math homework, English homework, French homework, science homework, and social studies homework; he has HEALTH homework and ART homework. When it comes to assigning homework, the motto is: No teacher left behind, not even teachers of classes that are supposed to offer a RESPITE from the regular load. He has short-term projects, long-term projects, mandatory and optional side reading. Moreover, for bureaucratic reasons that elude me, his French I class is for high-school credit, meaning that, though not yet in his teens, he is taking a class for a grade that colleges will see when they look at his high-school transcript. So, yeah: If it's a challenge, sometimes, remembering the date of the test on which he will be required to conjugate the verb etre , or keeping track of which days his loose-leaf science notebook is supposed to be in the classroom for teacher perusal, and which days it's supposed to be at home having lab sheets inserted, you are damn right I am at least going to try a homework tutor, for the short-term, to help us develop a better system. Because the stakes are real.

Oh, and let's see. In KJ's post, and Debra's post, and my post, and the Times article that started the discussion, what is the commonality of the children who sometimes lose track of test and homework due dates? The commonality is that they are boys. The problem is not the homework helpers; the problem is the homework itself, and a system that requires young children to master complex, if banal and often pointlessly difficult, systems, at an age where they should be out in the yard playing with sticks or watching birds migrate. As James Gleick noted in his great book Faster , the world tends relentlessly toward more complexity, and rare is the educational administrator who has the courage to apply the brakes. I wonder why boys are dropping out of high school and failing to attend college at the rate of girls? When they are young men, I have no doubt, they will master systems of an intricacy we can't imagine. At this age, they need a break. And if you can't give them a break, then I say: If you can find a good one, go ahead and give them a tutor.

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Female teacher helping boy by Ableimages.

Liza Mundy is the director of the Breadwinners and Caregivers Program at the New America Foundation and the author of The Richer Sex.

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