Help from St. Benedict
Since August 14, there has been one topic and one topic only
in our house: homework.
drills, algebraic equations and lines of latitude blanket
our evenings like an insidious London fog, choking off the
air supply of the stuff that makes us a family: togetherness,
entertainment and do-nothing time.
High school and middle school homework for two take a combined
four and a half hours, with both parents on call until bedtime.
By the time we have to start homework, our two sons have had
all of an hour to unwind. I will spend the next three hours
in a graceless ricochet between 6th grade science (kitchen
table), freshman English (dining room), and what passes for
disturbing of all is when I feel I’m in collusion with
the schools for the theft of our family life. Nightly “reinforcement”
(a euphemism for homework) puts me in the role of enforcer.
Even if I feel the assignment is pointless, I must shepherd
my son through it. I may not feel like doing it,
but he’ll get the zero. That can’t be
Bennett and Nancy Kalish certainly wouldn’t think so.
In their new book, The Case Against Homework, Bennett
and Kalish report that staggering amounts of homework do not
improve standardized test scores or college preparedness.
Instead, excessive assignments negatively impact family life
and children’s well being.
to Bennett and Kalish, students are doing half again as much
homework as they did in 1981. An Associated Press-America
Online poll put the national averages at 78 minutes per night
in elementary grades and 99 minutes for middle school. Three
hours of homework five nights a week is a routine expectation
in high schools, and the real figure may come closer to four
or five for students with challenges of one sort or another.
and Kalish also expose the standard homework advice as urban
of books insist that if parents just established a good
homework routine (a quiet spot to work, nearly organized
school supplies, a tasty but healthful snack, and an adult
available to answer their questions), kids would happily
buckle down and do it. But it’s not that simple. For
many kids, homework is like having to do their taxes every
night. How would we feel if we came home to hours of work
from five different bosses?
who have started science projects at 9:30 p.m. will cheer
at the section titled “Cardboard, Glue and Pasta: The
Homework Hall of Shame.” (The all-time low on my list
was a book report in the format of a cereal box. The teacher’s
instructions: if the book you read were a breakfast cereal,
what would the box look like? )
homily from some years back that made an impression on me
was one in which the priest advised, “Every household
needs at least one non-anxious presence.” That was the
position I aspired to when I elected not to return to full-time
newspaper work after my boys were born. Given my nightly angst
amid the homework avalanche, I doubt I would qualify as that
even-tempered presence today.
tension of the dance between being mom and homework cop brought
me to an emotional bottom recently, on the night of the mandatory
drug awareness meeting at my older son’s high school.
While they ate Pop-Tarts for dinner in the car, my sons heard
me sob and swear all the way to the program. I knew it was
neither becoming nor parental, but there was no stopping the
tears. By the time we arrived at the auditorium, I had pulled
myself together enough to sit listlessly through the film-cum-lecture.
bedtime a good friend called. (I don’t know about you,
but as soon as I hear the voice of someone who’s sympathetic,
I can tune up all over again.) In her phone call was the best
argument I have yet heard for getting in balance about the
homework issue. “You don’t want them to think
they can’t come to you because you’ll find it
too upsetting if they have a problem.”
had not occurred to me that my own sense of overload might
be sending them a signal to shut down. Suppose they need help
but hesitate to ask because it might set me off?
the new pair of lenses my friend gave me, I went about the
work of reviving the non-anxious presence.
Serenity Prayer reminds me to accept things I cannot change,
like the amount of work that comes in every night. It also
reminds me that it takes courage to change the things I can,
including my own attitude. How much of my resistance to my
sons’ work is a reaction to forces—or other adults—I
can’t control in my own life?
of the bits of ephemera on my bulletin board is a dog-eared
Christmas card. It says, “
not fear what may happen tomorrow. The same loving Father
who cares for you today will care for you tomorrow and every
day. Be at peace, then, and put aside all anxious thoughts
and imaginings.—St. Francis de Sales.
have moved these words of a 17th century bishop from the corkboard
to the dashboard.
also made some other changes. I’ve decided to forego
all mention of homework until it’s actually time to
do it. Within seconds of picking them up at the end of the
day, I used to ask my sons how much work they had. All it
accomplished was to extinguish any fleeting elation they might
have at being out of school. (Truth be told, their estimates
were unreliable more often than not. “You told me you
could do it in half an hour!” Voila, a conflict is born.)
I’m going to limit how much I look at “Powerschool”
and other such online progress reports to once a week. Monitoring
the dailies keeps me anxiously focused on what’s missing
and what could have been neater, timelier, more accurate and
I’m throwing out somebody else’s rulebook for
my family’s mental health. The
non-anxious presence (when I can locate her) is drawn to the
Benedictine rule, the topic of a Sunday school
class last year. The Benedictine rule suggests spiritual fitness
results from a balance of work, study and leisure.
must be given its due, but only its due. There should be something
of everything and not too much of anything,” writes
Sister Joan Chittister in Wisdom Distilled from the Daily.
In the 6th Century, Benedict introduced the idea that all
things—eating, drinking, sleeping, reading, working
and praying—should be done in moderation and in community.
The religious life until that time had been practiced in solitude
by hermits living alone in the desert to seek God. Benedict’s
genius, according to the Online Guide to Saint Benedict of
Nursia, was “to understand that each person’s
rough edges . . . are best confronted by living side by side
with other flawed human beings whose faults and failings are
only too obvious. . . .He understood that the key to spiritual
progress lies in constantly making the effort to see the Christ
in each person - no matter how irritating or tiresome.”
I think , is the real work of the home.
Piper has written for the lifestyle sections of newspapers
and magazines for more than 20 years, and has also taught
writing to students with special needs. As a wife and the
mother of two teenage boys, she is focusing on the life of
her family and the challenges that make parenting a spiritual