The word homework conjures up a variety of images, ranging from fear and anxiety to a sense of satisfaction and achievement. Many of us remember the frustration and the tears of struggling with an assignment we didn't understand. The lucky among us have memories of regularly coming home to cookies and milk and then sitting down quietly to do homework for an hour. But for most of us as parents, the thought of homework unfortunately does not conjure up a scene of family bliss. It needn't be that way. We can help children handle homework effectively, making a significant contribution towards our children's schooling.

Sometime in the eighties when new math was all the rage, I received a call from an irate parent. She wanted to know what I was doing, as principal, to teach parents the new approach to math so that they could do homework with their children. There were calls from parents who were new to Hebrew studies; they did homework together with their children so they too could learn the language. And then, there were the calls with parents inquiring what "we" should be studying for the achievement tests which were coming up, or complaning that "We spent hours studying and we only got an 80% on the test." Many of these parents are clearly not doing what's best for their child; but what is the appropriate role of a parent when it comes to a child's homework?

A child who learns to do his own work will in time become an independent learner and will learn to enjoy the process.

First let's all agree on a basic principle; it's the kids' homework!

Let's remember that we are not in school, our children are. There are many good educational reasons for assigning homework. Teaching the parents, or even keeping them abreast of what the children are learning, is not one of them. The role of the parent is to be the homework enabler; what we need to do is to facilitate the child's discharge of his/her responsibility.

If we want our children to become independent learners and ultimately enjoy the process of learning itself, then we have to let them take responsibility for their work. Homework assignments may be guided practice for what was learned in the classroom, it may be independent study or research in advance of classroom leaning, and the many variations on those themes. Regardless, our role as parents is to help the child get the most out of his or her assignment.

Here are some suggestions:

Provide a quiet appropriate atmosphere and proper place for your child to work independently.

Let Sarah unwind when she comes home. Remember she has been under pressure all day. The time and place for homework should be regular and not vary from day to day. Make sure that the place and the atmosphere are conducive to study. That doesn't mean that the dining room is an inappropriate place. But it does mean that it should be cleared of the freshly baked "challah" and today's mail. The baby should be kept away; now is not the time for Sarah to be babysitting, or even entertaining the little ones. In short, the room should be cleared of all distractions. Any music in the background should be conducive to study.

Answer questions in a way that helps the child think through the answer himself.

Most children will try to make things easier for themselves by involving a parent. It may be an information-seeking question or tears which play for sympathy (they will long ago have learned which buttons to push). The parent's role is to turn the situation around so that the child thinks things through himself. "Where can you look for the meaning of that word?" After a while Josh will learn that asking a direct question of you is useless and stick to things like "does this sound okay?"

Encourage and praise the child frequently for the way she is doing the work.

The value of a parent's approval and praise cannot be overrated. But praise must be honest, deserved and appropriate. Praise the behaviors, not the child, by saying things like "Your handwriting is beautiful" and "Looking for that word in the dictionary was very resourceful." Refrain from the generic "you are a smart kid." If you want a child to be encouraged by the praise and not to see it simply as flattery, then he must feel he has earned it and that it is appropriate to the act being praised; superlatives are not believable.

If the child is frustrated or unable to his work, tell him to leave it blank.

How will the teacher know your child is struggling and needs help if you do the work at home? The teacher assigns homework to either follow up on what the child has already learned or to help him prepare for what is will be learning. If your child isn't getting it, he will only fall further behind, unless the teacher finds out what the difficulty is and straightens it out. The teacher will only be upset if the child has not made an effort, not if he needs more information or guided practice. So...

Write a brief note to the teacher indicating the difficulty your child experienced.

Armed with this information the teacher will know which part of the lesson the child has learned and which needs to be reviewed again. By refrainig from doing your child's homework for him and instead informing the teacher if difficulties, you are enabling the teacher to work to resolve the problem.

No child should sit at a homework assignment beyond his ability to concentrate.

Depending upon the child's age and attention span he should not be sitting beyond a limited, agreed upon time. Even then, it's always better to take a short break and come back than to sit for long stretches of time. If Yossi seems to be unable to complete his assignments in the expected time, discuss it with his teacher. He may give you some insight into the child's work habits, shorten the assignment, or give Yossi a head start in school.

What skills do we want our children to learn as they do their homework?

We want them to learn personal responsibility.

When properly guided to do homework by themselves, children will learn that they are responsible for their schoolwork; it's not their mother nor the teacher who has to do the work. Mindy will learn that when you are supposed to do something, you have to do it; no one else is responsible for your work.

We want a child to become self-confident.

When Becky completes an assignment and earns the approval of parent and teacher, she develops confidence in her ability and will become less afraid to tackle work independently.

We want a child to develop personal independence.

A child who learns to do his own work will in time become an independent learner and will learn to enjoy the process. What more can we want?