Seven Leadership Tactics from the Workplace Help Busy Moms Ease Homework Struggles
By Jamie Woolf
Dreading the homework hassles that greet you after an exhausting day at work? Wondering how to instill a work ethic in your child? Relax. Leadership expert Jamie Woolf offers some “best practices” from the business world that will make the homework battles far less stressful and inspire a more motivated, responsible student.
Every parent has been there. Your child comes in from school with a pile of homework and zero motivation to actually do it. He’s supposed to complete his assignments while you prepare dinner, but you always find yourself keeping one ear out for the TV being furtively switched on, or perhaps the zap of a video game bad guy biting the dust. Or, if he does have his book open, he’s zoned out in front of it or interrupting you every five minutes for help with a math problem you know he could solve with a modicum of thought.
Yes, regardless of how much you nag and lecture, it seems homework is the farthest thing from your child’s mind—and it makes you feel helpless and hopeless.
But don’t throw up the white flag yet, says Jamie Woolf, leadership expert and author of Mom-in-Chief: How Wisdom from the Workplace Can Save Your Family from Chaos. You can still save your sanity and help your child develop a positive attitude about homework.
“Most parents, especially those who work outside the home, dread all the homework and pressure that the school year brings,” says Woolf. “And that’s understandable. Juggling work, school, and housework can be tricky, to say the least. But kids look to you as their leader, and your attitude and actions can make the difference between an apathetic student and an eager learner.
“If you avoid common mistakes many parents make when they engage in homework battles, and adopt leadership strategies that work well in the workplace and at home, your children are more likely to do their homework with minimal drama—maybe even cheerfully and with an increased sense of accountability and confidence,” she says.
Woolf, whose book teaches moms how to use “best practices” from the workplace to make family life run more smoothly, says that adopting business leadership strategies can make the difference between a child who resists homework every step of the way and one who takes it on with little or no nagging. Here are a few of her insights and suggestions on making homework time more productive and rewarding for everyone:
Change your perspective
Imagine what it would be like if your own boss approached every assignment with sighs, eye-rolls, and a constant barrage of negativity. You wouldn’t feel very inspired to do your best work, would you? Of course not! Well, the same principle applies to homework. If you’re unconsciously conveying how much you hate the daily mountain of dreary, difficult homework, your child is hardly going to be enthusiastic about it either.
“No matter what your personal views may be, frame homework in a positive light,” says Woolf. “When you see the value in something, chances are good your kids will too. They’ll be much more likely to cooperate.”
Get them to set big picture goals
Exemplary business leaders know that when we don’t set goals, we’re susceptible to veering off course and experiencing costly setbacks. So, why is goal-setting so important for business leaders and parents alike? Because, says Woolf, the very act of articulating a goal and committing to it focuses our attention on the bigger meaning and inspires us to not lose motivation over those niggling details.
“Ask your child, ‘If you started your homework each night without nagging and did your best work, what would you be doing differently?’” advises Woolf. Then encourage your child to come up with two to three new and measurable behaviors to commit to. Have her write them on a big sheet of paper and hang it up in her room. For example: I will do my homework after dinner without being asked or I will not turn on the TV until all my homework is completed. Each day go back to the poster and keep a record with stickers or tally marks that monitor how many days she follows through on her new agreements. Celebrate even the smallest successes and signs of effort.
Adopt the right coaching strategy
Good leaders know when to step in to help and when to allow a person to struggle independently so she gains self-confidence. A question every parent should ask when her child struggles with homework is does my child lack the skills to get the job done or is the problem that he doesn’t want to do the task? In other words, is the problem a motivational one or is the resistance related to ability (he doesn’t understand the math problems)? Once you diagnose the problem, you will provide the right kind of help, just as good managers do with marginal performers.
If your child is both unmotivated and doesn’t understand fractions (let’s hope you do!), it’s time to get in there and provide some hands-on assistance. Explain the concepts, provide help, and gradually let her try it herself, resisting the urge to complete the problems for her. On the other hand, let’s say your son is perfectly capable of doing his essay but would rather write messages to friends on MySpace. In this case, it’s time to foster responsibility. Go back to the big picture goals (Strategy #2), resist nagging, and set firm limits and consequences if he breaks his agreements.
Have you ever noticed that the most productive employees are the ones who make an effort to keep their offices at least fairly neat and organized? No one can do her best work amid chaos. That’s why you should help your child create a little “home office nook” all to herself. You don’t have to set up a desk, especially for younger children. Instead try a bean bag chair or a big cushy floor pillow. Set up a lamp and keep pencils, paper, and a calculator nearby—and hold her accountable for keeping everything in its place.
“When your child has an area she routinely uses for studying and homework, she becomes accustomed to switching into student mode when she is there,” says Woolf. “It is another good way to help develop a daily homework routine. And it teaches her how to stay organized—which is a skill that will serve her well throughout life.”
Workplaces are filled with people who point fingers and find excuses instead of assuming full responsibility. Kids, also, are experts at diverting responsibility. What parent hasn’t heard, “It’s not my fault,” or “The teacher didn’t explain the homework,” or “I’m just horrible at math”?
When you hear these excuses, you can say, “What can you do to influence the situation?” or “What might you do differently next time to avoid this problem?” These questions don’t let your child off the hook. They encourage him to assume responsibility and focus attention on the aspects of the situation he can control, an essential life skill.
Don’t give up
Let’s say you’ve made good progress for a few days but the novelty has worn off and now your child is back to his old, resistant ways. Your patience may be paper-thin, but hold off on losing your cool or labeling your child a poor student. The best thing you can do is to refocus on the big picture goal and calmly remind your child that he needs to follow through on his commitments. No yelling, no power struggles, no throwing up your hands and saying, “My kid’s a slacker.” Simply restate your agreement: No TV, no computer, until the homework commitments are completed. Help get him started by dividing the work into smaller, more manageable parts. Once again, go back to Strategy #3 and diagnose if you’re dealing with a motivational problem, or if the obstacle is related to a lack of understanding. When your child completes his homework, give praise for his effort.
Connect success with effort
Those who have been told how intelligent they are can give up when things get too hard. Children would rather keep their “smart kid” label than put in a lot of effort and possibly fail. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, maintains that although parents and teachers have long believed they could build kids’ confidence by praising their abilities, in actuality the opposite is true.
“Instead of saying, ‘C’mon, you can do it. You’re so smart,’ remind your child how she succeeded in the past,” advises Woolf “Say, ‘I remember how you wrote out your spelling words over and over and then you did well on your test,’ or ‘You worked for days on your geography report and remember how well it turned out?’ The message is that effort and perseverance, not innate talent, lead to success.”
Obviously the stakes are higher with your child than with your employees. You can fire an employee who performs poorly, but when your child is rebellious or apathetic, it triggers anxiety that can cause you to overreact and wonder where you went wrong.
“Remember that the aims both at work and at home are the same: to foster potential, consider individual learning styles, and develop capability,” says Woolf. “Transformational leaders continue to have faith in people’s ability even after they perform poorly or make mistakes. And since we all struggle to stay motivated or get through difficulties at some time or another, there’s no greater gift you can give your child.”
Jamie Woolf is a regular contributor to Working Mother magazine and founder of The Parent Leader and Pinehurst Consulting. In her book, Mom-in-Chief: How Wisdom from the Workplace Can Save Your Family from Chaos, Woolf addresses real-life quandaries and covers what career-oriented women need to know to unleash their parenting potential.