“Mom, I need help with math!!” “OK, honey, I’ll be right there.” Five minutes later the child is near tears and screaming, “You’re not helping me!!” You fume, “I’m not going to just give you the answers.” Does this sound familiar? Homework battles are an all too familiar family event.
What can you do? How can you help your child so that each of you feels good about the experience? The concept of “units-of-concern” is an effective way to resolving this problem. Every problem can be thought of as having ten units-of-concern that get distributed among those involved. The more units of concern a person carries, the more responsibility for the problem and the more worry the person carries. So, for example, if you are deeply worried about your child getting his or her homework done on time and about your child doing well, maybe you are carrying five or six units of concern. Your spouse may be involved a little bit and so carries three units of concern about getting homework done. That leaves only one unit of concern for your child. So, what do you do to shift the units of concern onto the shoulders of the person who should be carrying them?
First, you have to determine who owns the problem. In this instance, it is your child’s homework, not yours, so the problem belongs to your child. Second, you determine if there are natural consequences for the child that will occur is the problem is not solved. In this case, there are clear natural consequences for your child. If he does not do his homework, he will get a poor grade on it. “Wait a minute,” you say. “If she doesn’t do her homework, she’ll get a bad grade and then if that keeps happening, she may fail.” The bad news is that when you allow your child to make choices, he will make some poor choices that have negative consequences for the child. However, that is how we learn, by making choices, some of which work and some of which don’t. If you try to teach your child to ride a bicycle and never let go, the child will never learn to balance. However, on the way to good bike riding, most children fall a few times. Even if the worst happens and the child fails, say fifth grade, the good news is that there is fifth grade every year.
Harsh as that may seem, better to learn these lessons while the cost of a bad decision is cheap, than have to learn the lesson when the child is older and the costs greater. Third, you are now ready to handle the problem with your child by distributing the units of concern onto the appropriate set of shoulders. In this example, you let your child know that you are willing to help with homework, when it is convenient for you. You may set a time when you are available, or have some other set of parameters. When your child asks for help, you provide the assistance (not the answers) as long as the child is respectful and fun to be around. As soon as the child stops being respectful or fun to be around, you calmly get up and say as you are leaving, “I’m done for now, feel free to ask for my help again, when you (are more respectful) (can talk with me quietly) (are able to use good words and not nasty words).” The conversation and interaction are done. When you child comes in later and asks, “What am I going to do? If I can’t do my homework I’ll fail.” You can say something like, “Wow, that’s quite a problem you have there. What do you think is the solution?” If your child asks politely for your help again and demonstrates that he or she will work with you, then go ahead. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how quickly this method will eliminate battles and make homework something you and your child can actually share as a positive experience.
Arthur Becker-Weidman, Ph.D. is Director of The Center For Family Development, an Attachment Center in Western New York that specializes in the treatment of adoptive families and their children. Dr. Becker-Weidman achieved Diplomate status from the American Board of Psychological Specialties in Child Psychology. He is a Diplomate of the American College of Forensic Examiners. Dr. Becker-Weidman is an associate clinical professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He has over 50 publications and presentations at local, regional, and national organizations about adoption and child treatment issues. Dr. Becker-Weidman can be reached at 716-810-0790.