The Homework Diet: Stop Super-sizing Our Kids!

By Paul Chanan

Recently, a friend of mine was telling me about the job he has had for the past few years. During the week, Monday through Friday, he wakes up at 6 am and gets to work around 7:30.  He spends the entire day at the office, even eats lunch there. He has six or seven bosses, to whom he reports every day. His job requires that he work independently for each of them, because they each run different departments. He personally likes his bosses, and for the most part likes his job while he is at the office. The work is challenging, and many of his co-workers are also his friends, which is nice.

That’s when it gets a little tricky.

He leaves the office at 3 pm, and depending on if he has something to do after work, gets home any time between 3:30 and 6 pm. Then, after grabbing something to eat and maybe relaxing for an hour, he opens up his briefcase and starts working again. On any given night, several of his bosses have given him work to do at home. Sometimes the work needs to be on his boss’s desk the following day; other times it is a long-term project that needs to be worked on for weeks. Most of the time, each of his bosses is giving him work independently of the others, so most of the time the work takes many hours each night to complete. He tells me that he is often up until midnight, sometimes 2 am or later, just so he can get it ALL done.

And so it goes, five days a week, plus several intensive hours working on Sunday night.

I asked him if he gets paid big bucks to perform this demanding job, which takes him away from his friends, his family and his hobbies.  He told me he gets paid nothing. I told him that seemed totally unfair, and I asked him why he doesn’t quit. He told me he cannot quit, and in fact he has to keep this job for at least another four years, and probably eight or more, and that the demands of the job will most certainly increase before they get any easier.

So there he is, working 60 hours plus a week, day and night, five to six days a week, with no end in sight for the foreseeable future.

That all said, he did tell me that there is one great thing about his job …

He is not alone … not even close.

Every 13 year-old he knows has this same job. It’s called being a Suburban Middle-School Student in 2013.

Okay, I guess I did a pretty bad job of disguising that my “friend” is really my young son, whose academic experience is just one example of an educational system which, in my opinion, is really missing the boat as to what learning should really be about. Now I understand that many kids in the inner-city or in less privileged areas would love to have the problems described in this article, but just because our kids are lucky does not make this situation right.

To break it down a little, here are some specific areas I find hard to come to terms with:

  • Homework volume.  How could anyone think it’s a good idea to have our children in school for 7 hours a day, and then force them to work an additional 2, 4, 6 hours per night? Maybe our kids should be in school on Saturdays and Sundays too, so we can completely do away with all elements of a balanced life …
  • Backpacks.  Have you ever seen anything like the SIZE of today’s backpacks?  It looks like each child is packed for two months abroad in Europe just for one normal day at school. And if you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to have to carry your child’s backpack, forget it. It should have a warning label:  “BEWARE: Causes Double-Hernias, Broken Backs and Blown-Out Knees”.
  • Less focus on the creative arts.  At least our kids spend a period every day in art class, fostering their creativity, right?  Nope. Music every day? Nope. Personally, I wasn’t really an artsy type of person, but I think it’s horrible that the most creative-minded classes are put on a quarterly “rotation” — giving kids the message that creativity is of fractional importance to technical areas such as math and science.  No wonder kids are burning out in these areas.

So what happened between the time when school was “normal” (when we were kids), and now?

I don’t remember ending a 7-hour school day, lugging home 100 lbs of books and papers every afternoon, and then working another 4 or 5 or more hours on homework before passing out in exhaustion.

Was our generation so under-worked that the system needed to be fixed? 

Were we just so lazy and underachieving, that we needed an academic overhaul to get us on-track?  Let’s see … for reference-sake, here was my typical Middle School Day: Wake up, grab my Trapper-Keeper and Chandlers (total: 3 lbs) and go to school.  I went to all my classes, maybe took a test or worked on a few papers or assignments, then either headed home (with aforementioned Trapper-Keeper and Chandlers), to a sport or to a friend’s house. Let’s say I got home at 6 pm, I would eat dinner, do about 45 minutes of homework, watch some TV or hang out with my brother, then maybe talk on the phone for a bit, and get to bed around 10 p.m. or so.  Some days I had a big test to study for, or a big paper due. Those nights, I may have studied at home for 2 hours or so and made up for lost social time the rest of the week.

Who thinks it’s good, healthy and well-balanced for our kids to literally be either in class or doing homework for almost every hour that they are not sleeping?

And God forbid your child tries to squeeze in an extracurricular activity or a sport after school … he or she will be doing their homework until the alarm clock goes off the next morning.

It must be US, the parents, who are willing to forsake balance so that our kids are academically armed to compete against one another, or maybe compete against kids from some faraway intellectual powerhouse on the other side of the globe. But all the parents with whom I’ve discussed this subject also think the amount of homework is ridiculous. Actually, most parents seem genuinely angry with the schools for forcing this on our kids, but feel powerless to do anything about it.

If it’s not the parents, then it must be the teachers and school administrators, right?  But I happen to be personal friends with several people in the education field, and off the record, every last one of them tells me that THEY, TOO, THINK THIS IS ALL CRAZY.

It seems that most of them feel pressured by whoever it is that applies pressure to schools to have their students achieve certain goals. And I guess whoever it is making those rules demands that kids complete certain groups of tasks each school year, tasks that cannot be completed in the amount of time kids actually spend inside the building. So the only way to get these tasks finished is at home, and if those tasks include requirements in every subject, what you end up with is ALL teachers combining together to hand out ridiculous amounts of homework in total.

 So if the kids, parents, and educators think this is all crazy — who is left that could be making such bad decisions affecting our children?

That question led me to do just a little research, and it seems that the government has been ratcheting up how they measure the success of schools in this country since the 1980s (“Nation at Risk” policy) to the 2000s (“No Child Left Behind”).  And while these and other policies made standardized test results the primary measure of schools’ success, there was nobody monitoring the amount of homework that was being doled out.  So maybe the local educators are pressured to follow certain programs, to hit certain marks or to continue to trend higher with scores, and feel compelled to pour on the homework in order to hit those goals.

Maybe what is actually best for the kids has systematically become an afterthought?

So is there anything we as concerned parents can do? Is this just another “cause” that some will get fired up about but feel powerless to change, like so many others?  Maybe, but if you think this is a big enough problem to dig into, take a look at some others far more versed on this who have taken this topic to the next level:

– Authors Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish authored The Case Against Homework:  How Homework is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It.

– Duke Professor Harris Cooper (the proponent of “10 minutes of homework total per night, per grade” — whose theory has become popular among those seeking homework limits)

– Groups/websites like racetonowhere.com, which have helped those with homework concerns to organize and act.

I’m pretty sure that by “super-sizing” homework in the modern era, some real damage is being done to our children.

If we burn them out now, they are sure to feel like we robbed them of part of their childhoods, and I feel bad for them. Childhood is really the best time to be a child, and our kids will only get one shot.  Let’s make it count.

Lisa Barr, Editor of GIRLilla Warfare: Paul Chanan is the father of two. He is also a collaborative attorney and family mediator.  Paul and his partner, Melissa Mondschain, LCPC, founded Chanan Mondschain Co-Mediation Partners in Northbrook, Illinois, where they co-mediate, out of court, all issues involved in divorces and other family disputes. Be sure to check out: cmcomediation.com.



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