What Would Really Happen If You Stopped Nagging Your Teen About Homework?

My fifteen-year old daughter defines nagging as “something people do that they know is annoying to the other person.” Hmmm.

When parents nag, we usually have a valid reason, but reason does not make us effective, and when it comes to homework, this undoubtedly holds true. We repeatedly ask what homework tasks our kids have, have they begun the work, when will they start and why didn’t they start it sooner. The frustration builds and we go from nagging to threatening, to taking a punitive action we regret as soon as we’ve done it—After all, taking the kid’s phone for a week means he’s harder to get ahold of, grumpier and just as disorganized the following day.
But there is a middle ground. To find the middle way, I suggest finding the baseline first: investigate what your homework-challenged teen will do, or not do, if left to his own devices. Take an entire week off from the homework battle: Don’t nag, question, cajole or even gently inquire. Let the issue be. Then, do that “noticing” thing they talk about in mindfulness class. Notice how often you have to redirect yourself away from the nagging compulsion. Notice what your kid does when you let him alone.
Once you’ve taken the nagging hiatus, you’ll have a week of valuable data. The data may show that your kid slacks about as much as you’d expected, but that home-life is exponentially more peaceful. If your kid seems like he’s taken advantage of the situation and you get calls from teachers or he simply hunkers down and plays games all week, you know you have to take effective action. This means NOT nagging, which is exhausting, and as my daughter clarified for me, is given to teen misinterpretation of adult intention. Rather, try some of these teacher-suggested strategies:

Let the Data to the talking: Share with your child what you observed during the nag-free week. Tell him that he must prioritize his work and that certain activities will be prohibited until the work is complete. Ask him which activities he finds most distracting. Have him write up a list of activities he will avoid until homework is complete. You may not agree with him as to which habits/hobbies are most detrimental to his schoolwork, but try to stick with the self-reflection model. Then, agree on a consequence you will put in place to reinforce his new routine. Most teens respond well to being given more responsibility for themselves and respond poorly to having control taken away. Make it clear that this agreement is about trust and that you share their goal of self-reliance.
Model efficiency: Once you’ve established some basic expectations, stick to your own routine. If we want kids to value work and to establish good habits, we need to model those values. My own kids work better when I am around most weeknights, not nagging, but reading, answering emails, and finishing up the day’s chores.
Eat Family Dinner: There is a lot of data around school success and eating dinner as a family. I’m not talking about fancy food, just eating pizza or rotisserie chicken around the table is fine, if that’s what you do on weeknights. The point that matters about dinner time is the structure, the sense of time and having a break. Before dinner is early evening and after dinner is night. If kids take food into their rooms or eat on their own, this sense of structure is lost. Think about your work day and the importance of lunch, whether you eat at your desk or go out. The meal is part of how you organize yourself all day. If you cook for your family, even better. The sounds, smells and routine of meal preparation are all cues. My kids always want to know what’s for dinner and how long until we eat. It’s a nonverbal, nonintrusive cue-ing about time.
Keep it simple—don’t conflate the homework problem with the bedtime problem or the social media problem. Yes, they are related. But if you want to be heard, spearhead what matters most. Kids know social media is distracting and they know how tired they are in the morning. Encourage them to empower themselves to make better choices. Don’t take a black and white point of view on technology or social media—this tends to be interpreted as a generational slight. Point out the usefulness of timers, calendars and notes. Remember that you probably spent hours on the phone as a teen, while Snap Chat and Instagram may actually make checking in with friends comparatively efficient.
Back off when your kid hits his frustration point. Even older teens can be moved to tears or rage when they feel incompetent. A raging, crying, foot-stomping person is not ready to work. Gently tell them so. They should take a bath, listen to music, go out for a walk and re-charge. If they really are trying, and can’t understand or complete an assignment, they should ask for help from their teacher the following day. Try not to do an end-run around this process. Asking for help is an important skill/exercise in self-regulation. If you try to “rescue” a fit-throwing teen, you are likely to end up in a heated conflict. Know it is not just your teen who regresses when he’s frustrated. Venting and off-loading frustration through tears and rage is common (sometimes even in the classroom). Wait for the storm to pass and address these issues of self-restraint when he is calm and ready to reflect—likely the following day or even the following week. Above all, do not shame/humiliate teens when they lose control. They already know they are being jerks. Walk away. That is judgment enough.
Say “Do the best you can,” and back this statement up meaningfully. When we say we care about effort, this is an abstraction for many kids. Ask him how he copes with his most difficult classes. Share how you cope with your work challenges. Avoiding difficult tasks, leaving them for last, and spending little time on them does not constitute making an effort. Tutoring is generally effective as it increases time on task, while decreasing task-related frustration, since help is readily available. If you are willing/able to hire a tutor, point out how this may help. But know also that teachers are generally willing to give extra help to kids who need it.
Go positive. Talk to your kids about the classes and activities that interest him. When he shares with you about his successes, don’t turn around and ask him about the class he hates the most. When checking in about work, ask about his favorite subjects first. Sometimes, we unintentionally devalue what our children are most successful at for fear they will not put the effort in when they are faced with challenging subjects.
Catch your own emotions with regards to your kid’s work. Many times, we are bringing a good deal of anxiety to the homework conversation. When we feel anxious, kids often feel like they are “in trouble,” or being scolded. They do not differentiate well between our anxiety and our anger.
Don’t go all Tiger Mom: Hyper-aggressive parenting may lead to skills-acquisition. Data supports, however, that creativity and grit are more important than acquiring skills others insist you have. Successful people have both talent areas and areas of deficit or weakness. The Tiger Mom book is a memoir that is filled with self-examination, cultural-criticism and regret. It is not a parenting manual. Remember, your kids know you as well as you know them. Be authentic. If your style is gentle, do not adopt an aggressive parenting style around the single issue of homework.
DO, remind your kid that work is hard. Validate the struggle. Share with them how you overcame a struggle at work or in school. Our kids are busy. Their lives are changing fast and they have many distractions, most internal and emotional. The social media fixation is a manifestation of what it means to be adolescent—they care enormously about what others think, including you. Let them know you trust them, beginning with the week off of homework nagging! You may be surprised by the peace. You may also be surprised by the level of productivity. Sometimes, our parenting strategies are doing more harm than good. Everyone in the family may benefit from a more deliberate, less intrusive, approach to homework guidance.

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