Friday, November 2, 2012

Homework and Child Abuse

We often talk about homework as a fact of life and child abuse as a scourge to be excised. But what about homework when the child gets hurt? That is, hurt by homework. Is that child abuse?


In my clinical practice, I've seen child protection authorities get involved when parents put their children at harm. Obviously, parents are imperfect and harm is relative, so how much and what type of harm is abuse?


If I beat my kid, would that be abuse? If I spanked my child, what about that? What if I spanked my child regularly? What if I did it out of anger? What if I did it as a measured form of discipline, directly related to bad behavior? What if I did it in a measured way for behavior I thought was bad but was, in reality, outside my child's control? What if I put him in the corner when he did something wrong? For ten minutes? For an hour? For three? Sitting in a chair? Standing there? Standing on one foot? What if my child was wheelchair-bound and I made him get up and walk up the stairs? At the recommendation of the physical therapist? Because I thought he could? Once a day? Every time?


Now let's alter the scene. Instead of a wheelchair, let's say your child has terrible handwriting, handwriting so bad it can hardly be read. Let's say your child has trouble sitting still and has a need to keep getting up and down. Let's say your child reads slowly. Let's say it takes your child twice as long as the average child to get the homework done.


The experts recommend ten minute per night per grade. So suppose it takes your first grade child twenty minutes to do the work, your second grade child twenty, your sixth grade child one twenty, and so forth. And for his effort, there are frequent battles, low grades (even if he does half the work), after school and weekend detentions. Is that abuse? Is that much different from making your wheelchair bound child bypass the ramp and pull himself up the stairs?


The wheelchair example actually follows a true conversation between me and my homework trapped child's middle school principal. In seventh grade, he was placed in a special program that left him in regular classes but afforded him a small social studies class where he and a few kids could work with a teacher. The result was excellent. First, the special class meant less social studies homework, without reducing homework in reading, science, or math. Second, the class came at the end of the day so the social studies teacher could be mindful of assignments that had come earlier in the day. The teacher would balance the need for the social studies lesson against the value of giving the students extra time to get their assignments done. This small adaptation cost him some of his social studies curriculum but led to large results in his learning, grades, and overall self-esteem.

The next year, he was not assigned to this special program. I asked the principal why and was told that he was no longer eligible because he passed all his classes. I brought up the wheelchair analogy and asked the principal, if a wheelchair bound child is successful all year getting to school using the ramp, is that the basis for denying him the ramp the next year? After all, the accommodation worked and he passed all his classes, just like my son.


Dr. Kenneth Goldberg, is the author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Teachers, and Students, published by Wyndmoor Press.

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