QUESTION: How do you feel about homework being given in elementary schools? Do you think it is a good idea? If so, how much and how often?
JAMES DOBSON: Having written several books on discipline and being on the record as an advocate of reasonable parental authority, my answer may surprise you: I believe homework for young children can be counterproductive if it is not handled very carefully.
Little kids are asked to sit for six or more hours a day doing formal classwork. Then many of them take a tiring bus ride home, and guess what? They're placed at a desk and told to do more assignments. For active, fun-loving youngsters, that is asking too much. Learning for them becomes an enormous bore instead of the exciting panorama that it should be.
I remember a mother coming to see me because her son was struggling in a tough private school. ''He has about five hours of homework per night,'' she said. ''How can I make him want to do it?''
''Are you kidding?'' I told his mother. ''I wouldn't do that much homework!''
Upon investigation, I found that the elementary school that he attended vigorously denied giving him that many assignments. Or rather, the school didn't give the other students that much work. It did expect the slower boys and girls to complete the assignments they didn't get done in the classroom each day, in addition to the regularly assigned homework. For the plodders like this youngster, that meant up to five hours of work nightly. There was no escape from books throughout their entire day. What a mistake!
Excessive homework during the elementary school years also has the potential of interfering with family life. In our home, we were trying to do many things with the limited time we had together. I wanted our kids to participate in church activities, have some family time, and still be able to kick back and waste an hour or two. Children need opportunities for unstructured play -- swinging on the swings and playing with basketballs.
Yet by the time their homework was done, darkness had fallen and dinnertime had arrived. Then baths were taken and off they went to bed. Something didn't feel right about that kind of pace. That's why I negotiated with our children's teachers, agreeing that they would complete no more than one hour per night of supervised homework. It was enough!
Homework also generates a considerable amount of stress for parents. Their kids either won't do the assignments or they get tired and whine about it. Tensions build and angry words fly. I'm also convinced that child abuse occurs at that point for some children. When my wife, Shirley, was teaching the second grade, one little girl came to school with both eyes black and swollen. She said her father had beaten her because she couldn't learn her spelling words. That is illegal now, but it was tolerated then. The poor youngster will remember those beatings for a lifetime and will always think of herself as ''stupid.''
Then there are the parents who do the assignments for their kids just to get them over the hump. Have you ever been guilty of doing that? Shame on you! More specifically, have you ever worked for two weeks on a fifth-grade geography project for your 11-year-old -- and then learned later that you got a C on it? That's the ultimate humiliation!
In short, I believe homework in elementary school should be extremely limited. It is appropriate for learning multiplication tables, spelling words and test review. It is also helpful in training kids to remember assignments, bring books home and complete them as required. But to load them down night after night with monotonous bookwork is to invite educational burnout.
In junior high classes, perhaps two hours of homework per night should be the maximum. In high school, those students who are preparing for college must handle more work. Even then, however, the load should be reasonable. Education is a vitally important part of our children's lives, but it is only one part. Balance between these competing objectives is the key word.
(James Dobson is president of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, P.O. Box 444, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80903; or www.family.org. Questions and answers are excerpted from ''Solid Answers,'' published by Tyndale House.)
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