It can be, but not entirely for the reasons you might suspect. After hearing about how my friend’s six year old child studies for 6 to 8 hours after school everyday and knowing she is not in the minority, I was interested in how this work load is going to affect my children’s generation. Child psychologist, Dr. Louise Porter, was visiting Hong Kong from Australia and gave three seminars on “Children’s Self-Esteem”, “Motivating Children”, and “Guidance Approach to Parenting” which I attended to gain further insight.
Detrimental effects of homework
Studies demonstrate that for children younger than 16 years old, homework is detrimental to children’s education and development (Trautwein and Koller). Dr. Louise Porter says children with more than 1 hour of homework a night are likely to suffer from stress, tiredness, and have higher negativity towards school work. Some governments seem to agree. China has banned homework for 1st and 2nd graders and has imposed limits on homework up to middle school. The US’s National Education Association recommends 10 minutes per grade per day (so my friend’s six year old would be doing 10 minutes of homework per day, not 36 to 48 times that). The Toronto District School Board in Canada has limited homework for 12-18 year olds to one to two hours per day. Michael Gove, the UK’s Education Secretary has scrapped national guidelines setting how much time children should spend on homework. The Anglo-Chinese Schools (Junior) in Singapore have allocated two days a week as “no homework days” while other Singaporean schools have implemented similar limits on homework. Interestingly in Hong Kong, Dr. Porter says parents ask her how to get the teachers to stop assigning so much homework. When she speaks to the teachers, they ask her how to get the parents to stop demanding so much homework.
Although homework is supposedly meant to teach children self-discipline and good study habits, Dr. Porter asserts that “it is the parents and teachers who impose and police the homework” so “the discipline is external not internal”. Many parents resort to coercion to get children to do their homework. This controlling style of parenting results in children with poorer task orientation (Parker et al. 1999). Also just placing the parent in the role of instructor can be detrimental to the child’s education and can add to family stress (Ramey & Ramey 1992; White et al. 1992). Addressing this coercion style of parenting is the cornerstone of Dr. Porter’s seminars.
There is another issue which Dr. Porter does not discuss but which I have encountered several times in my career in banking, working with highly educated individuals representing the alma mater of the best universities in the world. Time and time again, I have found that what holds most of these people back is not their intelligence level but rather personality problems. Spending more time socialising with others in order to develop interpersonal skills instead of doing homework could benefit children.
The role of tradition
All three of Dr. Porter’s seminars addressed the coercion or punishment-reward style of parenting. She believes this system punishes children for being children. “My parents raised me this way and I’m fine, so why should I change?” was a common question amongst the parenting community attending the seminars. Dr. Porter presented the different undesirable personality characteristics of people raised using coercion parenting and the room became very quiet as many parents identified with some if not all of the characteristics presented.
Dr. Porter’s view is that children make mistakes because they simply do not know how to behave yet. She gives the example that adults are patient when children make developmental mistakes (ie falling over when running, not being able to write perfectly) but that children are not afforded the same benefit of the doubt when they make behavioural mistakes (hitting, biting, not sitting still through a meal, etc). Mistakes are inevitable and accidental as children lack self-control and call for teaching.
Dr. Porter’s perspective on children
She states that as a species, humans are cooperative and her evidence is that we are the dominant species despite a prolonged period of adolescence. Knowing this human tendency to cooperate, she says shows us that children want to cooperate with us and want to please us but as adults we need to show them how. She says power struggles and a determination to show children who is in control are nothing more than demonstrations to the children that the adult is more stubborn than the child. But if instead children have a connection with you and understand that you are reasonable and that you trust them then they are more likely to cooperate and want to please you.
She does admit that 20% of children not “pleasers” and rather are autonomous. For them the most important thing is for them to feel in control of themselves. She says for these children it is important not to struggle against them so they don’t have something to struggle against as they will exhibit rebelliousness, resistance, and retaliation. Rather you guide them towards the desired behaviour.
Why try the Guidance Approach to parenting?
Coercion parenting does not achieve the desired results. Dr. Porter believes the coercion parenting style which uses the punishment-reward system is destined to fail because it requires the punishment or reward to be delivered immediately, frequently, and consistently which is not possible. The evidence is repeat offenders. The punishment-reward system also has many negative effects.
Detrimental effects of coercion
The penalty for teaching children blind respect for adults and using the punishment reward system are three-fold. Firstly it opens children up to abuse. Studies of paedophiles demonstrate that the paedophiles on average have abused 280 children before one of the children tells on them. This means 279 children have remained silent. Studies show when interviewed, child molesters say they were able to get away with it because “children are told to do as they are told”.
The second effect of the punishment-reward system is that it makes selfish children as they decide whether or not to do something not based on how it will affect others but rather on if they will obtain a punishment or reward. The children expect the adults to judge their behaviour and do not learn to monitor their own behaviour. The child may lose their intrinsic motivation to learn as their focus shifts towards the reward, punishment or winning by competing with other children. They will also have less empathy and less sophisticated moral reasoning. It ultimately affects their education as they learn less because they are performance focused.
The third effect is that it undermines a child’s sense of self-esteem because the determinants of whether the child is good or bad is externally imposed. Punishment and rewards are similar because if a child feels they deserve a reward and do not receive it, they will feel punished. Conformist children may avoid taking risks and doing anything different as they fear adult disapproval. A child who relies on competence as their source of self-esteem will then be addicted to validation. They will rely on outside validation to feel successful instead of feeling secure in their own idea of themselves. Any failure will rock them to their core as it makes them feel worthless. Since the stakes are high to achieve, they are more likely to cheat or avoid challenge altogether. Often these children are arrogant and highly critical of others because they fear they are average.
How Guidance Parenting works
First, parents should not view themselves as the boss who controls children but rather the leader who uses wisdom and expertise to guide children. Children who view their parents as oppositional will have a poor relationship with their parents.
Change the way we speak to children by focusing on the process rather than the outcome. For example focus on how they painted something rather than the resulting picture. This reduces comparisons between differing abilities, particularly for siblings of different ages.
So we are to ask children how they feel about their achievements, reflect their feelings back to them, state our opinion, congratulate them, state our appreciation, and focus on the process not the outcome. For example, if a child paints a picture, you can say,”how do you feel about your painting?” “I think you can be proud of yourself.” “Congratulations.” “I’m proud for you.” “I’m impressed you tried something new.”
By acknowledging the child’s achievement, the child receives information with which to determine their own idea of their self-worth.
The real test: bad behaviour
Dr. Porter says that children’s feelings are more intense than that of adults while they have a diminished ability to explain themselves and lack experience to resolve emotions. As humans we have the ability to have feelings about our feelings and as such, children can easily lose control and then panic. We need to be there to support them and teach them how to resolve their emotions.
If the child is upset then if the child is under 4 years old they need to first be soothed and protected “I am going to hold you until you can remember to not hit your friend.” If they are older they can be given time away doing something relaxing or soothing to show them that next time they should take time away to calm down instead of behaving inappropriately-just as adults do. This part is easy enough to do and we have noticed our older son now times himself out rather than working himself into a hysteria and taking it out on his younger brother.
The next step is extremely difficult to do if you are very upset by the child’s behaviour and no one gets it perfect all the time. The adult should specify the problem, give options, illustrate likely outcomes, explore which outcomes are viable, guide children to find their own outcome, and invite them to seek you for further help. Evaluate how the resolution is working and then if needed, renegotiate. So for example, one would say, “in what way did you think that doing that would help?” “What did you have in mind when you did that?” “What is your objection to doing what you were asked to do?” “What do you need right now?” “What can I do to help you?” In our experience though, keeping cool and working through these question has benefits. When we don’t remember to follow this sequence of questions, once the child has calmed down and explained (their often nonsensical) idea behind the behaviour, we often see how from the child’s perspective we were overly harsh.
Why persevere? We all want the same outcome
We all want children who feel positive about themselves and are self-driven to determine their own lives. Children who are resilient and recover from setbacks without affecting their self-esteem. Children who view these setbacks as a learning experience and a failure in the process rather than a reflection of themselves. Children who feel confident to take risks and excel as they are self-driven, not because they want to best someone else. Is this a possible outcome when children have hours of homework everyday and parents inevitably resort to coercion to complete it?
Want happier children?
Children need more free time to play and less homework. Children learn through play so they can explore the world. Playing helps them develop their own ideas of independence and control. Playing undoes stress and makes children happier and healthier. Playing with other children teaches them social skills. We want children who trust their parents, look to them for guidance, are intrinsically motivated, are independent thinkers, are resilient in the face of setbacks, have an authentic self-esteem, have a strong moral compass, and have a life-long love for learning. Maybe we should evaluate if our parenting techniques and educational system are giving us the results we want.
For more on Dr. Porter please see her website at: www.louiseporter.com.au Her research paper on homework can be found under “Your Questions”.