Back when my son was in kindergarten, he'd come home every so often with an assignment to put together a poster presentation on a country in whatever part of the world his class was studying at the moment. And naturally, given that my then-4-year-old thought "baby sounds" not "search engine" when he heard the word Google (and since he had yet to master even the hunt-n-peck approach to typing on a keyboard), his homework assignments became my homework assignments. That year, I learned an awful lot about Japan, Egypt, Chile and Spain. (Did you know Spain produces 44 percent of the world's olives??? Fascinating, right?)
Still, it wasn't like my kid had been asked to do a PowerPoint presentation on Spain's debt crisis. Poster presentations are fairly easy, drawing on those essential kindergarten skills: cutting, pasting, scrawling with crayon. So even though I was some 40 years removed from kindergarten, I had some inkling of what the end product should look like.
With our very first poster project, we spent the day Googling pictures of Spain's geography, architecture, food and culture. Or, to be more precise, we spent 24 hours in 10-minute increments over many, many days because that is the average attention span of a kindergartener who is not playing Hill Climb on your iPad. If the project was to play Hill Climb on the iPad, he'd have the whole damn thing knocked out in five minutes. But since teachers -- even kindergarten teachers -- do not send kids home with instructions to play Hill Climb on the iPad and then report back, it will take approximately three weeks to do a poster project that would take the average adult about 20 minutes to assemble. And that's if there's a paper jam... and you need to run to Staples for more ink cartridges... and the Staples is 10 minutes away... and you get a flat tire en route.
Being that the kid was (hello??) 4 and had never put together a poster presentation before (and because I have a black belt in perfectionism), the trick to pulling together this project would be to gently guide my child in the process of cutting out the images and gently make suggestions about how they might be artfully arranged on the posterboard... without shoving him out of the way and slapping the whole thing together myself.
I wanted him to do it by himself. And I wanted it to be good. I wanted it to be the best damn poster presentation on Spain the kindergarten teacher had ever seen. I wanted him to do a GOOD project BY HIMSELF. (You're probably beginning to see the enormous sinkhole threatening to open up right under this precarious situation.)
"HE needs to do it! Let HIM do it!" I scolded my husband when the poor man attempted to position some of the images on the poster himself. My husband then slunk off to clean the pool filter, something he knew he would not get yelled at for doing, because I have no idea how to clean the pool filter and would never think of cleaning the pool filter anyway.
But then it was me hovering, micromanaging the project, basically doing exactly what I'd just chided my husband for doing. Yes, I wanted my kid to do it by himself. I just wanted him to do it by himself MY WAY. (Did somebody say... sinkhole?)
"Here, Sweet Pea, let me show you...." I tried to move the damn project forward.
But, alas, by this time, my son had reached the end of his 4-year-old attention span. I couldn't blame him. I was so tired of sitting and watching him cut out the images to paste on the poster board -- because a 4-year-old will only cut out images if you remain next to him at all times -- that by the time we reached the actual arranging and pasting stage of the project, I would have willingly spent the rest of the afternoon watching episodes of Thomas The Tank Engine (the most inane children's show this side of Barney) if we could just, for the love of Pete, wrap this up already. But while I couldn't nudge the project forward, I also couldn't walk away. The kid clearly didn't want to work on the project anymore... yet he still refused any and all entreaties to give it a flippin' rest.
"Okay, Sweet Pea," I said, forcibly swallowing my annoyance. "How 'bout you try it this way --"
But every attempt to demonstrate how he might organize the material was met with resistance. There really is no stubbornness like 4-year-old stubbornness. He was young enough to outlast me... and old enough to know he was driving me bat-shit crazy doing it. He pouted that he didn't know what to do... then insisted that he didn't want my suggestions, either. In an act of supreme frustration, he swept all the photos that had been laid out on the poster into a pile on the floor.
I thought back to the teacher telling me this would be a "fun project," and wondered what she'd been growing in her garden and smoking.
There was no fun. What there was was prodding. There was cajoling. There was bargaining. There was angst. And anger. There were tears. There was yelling. "JUST GLUE THE PICTURES ON AND BE DONE WITH IT!!" It is possible that scissors were thrown. (Safety scissors... more like dropped... with a great deal of force... still, it was definitely not my proudest moment.)
But eventually, every picture was stuck on the foam-board in some manner, and there was crayon scrawl beneath, identifying what each photo was. It was... a mess. It looked exactly like a 4-year-old did it: crooked pictures; jagged cutouts; illegible crayon scribbles.
Walking into school the next morning, I caught another mom carrying her kid's poster into the classroom. It was a poster about Holland. And it was beautiful. I stopped her just so I could admire it. There were photos from a family trip arranged, just... so. A candy wrapper from a bar of Dutch chocolate. Postcards of windmills. Pictures of tulips. It was a work of art.
For a moment, I had an ugly flash of poster envy. Now why didn't my kid's poster look like THAT?!? This was gorgeous. So tidy. So perfect. So... oh!
I really can be a little slow on the uptake, especially before I've finished my first gallon of coffee in the morning. And that's when I realized: The project was so perfect, it was highly unlikely that her kid had had any part in its assembly. Maybe he'd had some buy-in on the concept. Maybe he'd chosen the country. But Mom had done the heavy lifting and curating and pasting. And it showed.
I looked at my kid's poster again. It looked exactly like a 4-year-old had done it. And it made me proud.
Norine is the co-creator of the illustrated humor blog Science of Parenthood. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
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The school year started off well for my fourth grade son and homework seemed to be moving along smoothly. However, by mid-January I started to see a progression of hemming and hawing, procrastination and delay tactics, a prickly attitude, distractions, and then off-track behavior. Furthermore, he didn’t want me to sit at the table with him any more as he did his homework.
It took me a while to notice I was getting more and more tense around the issue of homework. This challenge seemed to come out of nowhere though it had been building for quite some time. In fact, the struggles around homework were starting to take more time than the homework itself. Of course, I pointed this out to my son, thinking like a logical adult. That didn’t help the situation at all. The tensions were mounting.
(C) Cienpies Design 2009
The only thing I knew to do was to get listening time. I told my Listening Partner all my worries and fears. When my son got grumpy around homework, I felt like my back was up against the wall. Good study habits were always important to me and I wanted my son to have that same attitude. I got worried when it seemed like he was giving up so easily, he couldn’t focus, or that he was possibly “lazy” as he did the bare minimum to get by. If he freaked out about a little homework assignment, what would happen when he was out in the real world with a real boss who was demanding things that may seem impossible? Will he be ‘tough enough’ to make it in this world? I also didn’t like that homework was taking up so much family time. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if it was just getting done, but when you added all the complaining, whining and distractions around it, our family time was dwindling to nothing. I was getting very tired of this scenario and it was getting worse.
I told all of this to my listening partner. I was able to get frustrated and shake and feel the heat of being alone in this “battle” I was in as my listening partner heard and encouraged me, knowing I would figure it out. I remembered how easy school was for me, but I also had a few stressful homework moments when I was a teenager. I was very serious about my homework as a teen. My listening partner helped remind me that I was a good parent and I had good thinking, and that I was loving my son well. I could start to see things a little more clearly as I got several sessions of listening time.
I could see that some of the learning tasks in front of him could be challenging and possibly even overwhelming while other tasks could seem tedious. His teachers were working hard to push him to higher heights, but it was inevitable that frustration was going to occasionally set in. Frustration could cause his mind to tense up.
His tensed up mind would find a small thing to get stuck on. With my son, he would get stuck on things like his “stupid spelling words,” and then his pencil wouldn’t work, and then his eraser would tear the “stupid paper.” Because I was getting good listening time around homework, I was able to see that his frustration was really becoming a block to his learning and progressing more fluidly through his homework.
I also knew that a tantrum, with crying, sweating and lots of movement would actually help him move through his frustration around homework. If I could give my son an outlet for his frustration, all the energy that went to managing that frustration could be freed up for “learning power.” This would allow him to learn more quickly and even take “learning risks.” It would free his mind of the negative feelings that could build up. It would build confidence for a learner.
So what did I do? I set up a good cry. Here is what happened. My son was supposed to do some spelling homework. The first step was to trace the letters with his finger and then write the word twice. He didn’t do the tracing. From the kitchen as I was doing the dinner dishes, I reminded him of the proper instructions. He grumbled back at me.
Keep to the Limit
It was clear he was frustrated. I could tell he was putting the least amount of effort into his homework. If I let things continue, this wasn’t going to go well. But I had anticipated this and I knew I was in a good place, so I went to him warmly, put a gentle hand on his arm, sat down next to him, and said very warmly, “Sweetheart, the letters need to be traced.”
Immediately, he jumped up from his chair and started yelling about how stupid it was to trace the letters. His teacher was stupid and he wasn’t going to do it. He ran into the living room. His arms flailed. I followed him, moving slowly, giving him all of my attention and eye contact, and sat on the edge of the couch. I listened as he yelled some more about how stupid it all was. I nodded my head a few times, and said, “I see.” He ranted for about 10 minutes. I said, “Yes, you need to trace with your finger.” He fell on the ground crying. I moved from the couch next to him and put my hand on his back. I just listened.
I didn’t try to fix anything for him. The issue was not him thinking things were stupid. The real issue was the tension that that didn’t allow thoughts to flow freely and learning to take place. I knew I didn’t need to counter his complaints or how everything was stupid. I knew listening to him offload his frustration would help him tremendously.
For the next 10 minutes he would oscillate from jumping up and moving around to falling on the ground in a crying heap. I moved with him, but slowly and deliberately. Staying as close as he would let me, and letting his words of frustration fall out of his mouth. I didn’t give him a lecture about how amazing his teacher is or how important his homework is. I just listened. I let him focus on his homework trigger (the finger tracing) and I focused on listening and connecting with him.
Then suddenly he stopped crying. He wanted a break from his homework that night and to make it up the next night. I agreed to this. I could see he was really exhausted. I wanted to give him an opportunity to step up. I wanted to see what he would do.
The next day, when I helped him get set up with his ‘double’ homework, there was no discussion, no exchange of what needed to happen next, no issues to review, no talk about anything being “stupid.” He just started tracing the words with his finger. Word by word. Just like his teacher instructed him to do. In fact, it’s the end of the school year and we have not had a single homework struggle since this tantrum. Moreover, the quality of his homework improved throughout the rest of the year with much more focus, care, attention to detail and enthusiasm from him.
Kristen Volk, Certified Parenting by Connection Instructor
Kristen is a Certified Parenting by Connection Instructor and a single mother living with her two children in Denver, Colorado. You can connect with Kristen now on her Facebook page
From the Hand in Hand Toolbox
There’s more on homework help in The Big Reason They Won’t Do Homework
If school is difficult try Five ways To Banish Back to School Blues
Find all your parenting struggles addressed in the book Listen: Five Ways To Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges. Read a chapter here.