The Homework Trap

Special to Beautiful Brown Babies by Dr. Kenneth Goldberg In 1986, after learning we could not conceive another child, my wife and I decided to adopt. We searched out our options, and the process brought two beautiful brown babies into our home. Liberal but naïve, we did not realize how much race matters. At first, I thought people stared at us because we happened to have exceptionally good-looking kids. Our first entrée into race and education came when my daughter went into first grade. We were told by the school that she needed an aide to help her, because she did not read well. We inquired and learned that a five question test was used as the basis for making this determination. We were assured she would not feel singled out, because the school aide would help the other children as well. It seemed to me that the school was seeking an extra teacher, and what better way to get one than through the mis-categorization of a child of color. As it is, my daughter has always been the best reader among my three children, including my white, biological son. We turned down the recommendation, and the next year we moved.

We left the suburbs for an old town (with revolutionary war roots) that had a historic black section of town. We valued the concept of integrated schools that our children could attend. I recall talking with a neighbor who pointed to the little yellow buses on the street. “There won’t be many black kids by the time they’re in high school,” he said, the implication being that large numbers of young people would be classified and then shipped off to alternative schools. My daughter did not become a small yellow bus kid. For my youngest son, it was a different story. From the start, he gave every indication of being a star. Personable and funny, bright and motivated, we got rave reviews from his first grade teacher, awed that psychologists could raise a happy kid. Then, second grade came, and things started to change.

Our son, for all his brightness, wit, and goodness of heart, could hardly manage the pencil in his hand. His handwriting was so bad, it hurt his hand to write, and he could not produce many legible words. Homework was impossible. How could we help him when the assignments he wrote down from the blackboard were impossible to read? From that point on¸ we fell into a homework trap. Year after year, we were constantly warned that, if he did not do his work, he’d have trouble later on. Prophetic in a way, it became clear that the homework system was the cause of his problem. We were not against homework, and certainly never against the school, but the prospect of banking our child’s future on schoolwork sent home seemed to us to be grossly wrong.

As I said, I’m a psychologist so I did what psychologists do and began to seek comparisons between what I saw in my life, and what my patients said. Through that process, it became clear that we were not the only parents of a homework-trapped child, and that there were consistent patterns in what was going wrong. Children got homework trapped, not because they were lazy or bad, but because they could not work at a reasonable pace. If they worked slowly when they were in school (often because their handwriting was so bad), they had a teacher watching what they did and recognizing that they wanted to do well. Even more importantly, they had a school bell that was going to ring and let them go home at the end of the day. At home, they were faced with assignments that had to be done, even if it meant it consumed the whole night. Frankly, I consider it borderline child abuse to engage in battles and make a young person work hours on end, just to make sure some worksheets get done.

So here’s my proposal: 1. Time bound homework. Just like school starts and stops by the clock, define homework as a fixed period of time. See what the child can do in a reasonable amount of time and work with that child on using the time well.
2. Reduced penalties. Zeros factored in at twenty-five percent of the grade is too harsh of a penalty to alter behavior. Lesser consequences will prove more effective in both mobilizing the child and allowing the parent to approach the issue calmly.
3. Respect lines of authority. Teachers are in charge of their classrooms. Parents should tread lightly on telling them what to do. Parents are the people in charge of their homes. Teachers should not tell parents how to organize their homes. In the end, when decisions are to be made about behaviors in the home (i.e. homework), the parents need to be the ones with the final say.
I remember in our early conversations with some of our African American friends that there was widespread concern about special education. On the one hand, no parent wants to deprive his child of the education he needs if a learning disability truly exists. On the other hand, we heard of great concerns that special education was being overused with children of color. As white folks, it took us time to understand what was really being said. Our daughter could have gone down a special education track, simply because, in first grade, she failed a simple five question test. And our son eventually went the child study team route, largely because we as parents lost the right to employ our judgment and make the decisions we thought were right. I’ve written The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers partly to share what I have learned as a parent of a homework-trapped child, and partly to give parents the tool I did not have to advocate for my child. But above all, I want parents to have a basis to take charge of their homes.

Dr. Kenneth Goldberg is a clinical psychologist with 35 years of professional experience in dealing with many different psychological issues. He is the author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers and currently works in his own private practice. A member of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Goldberg has been a featured expert in top media outlets including The Los Angeles Daily News and The Washington Post. For more information, please visit


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