A few years ago, I was working with a 15-year-old boy, Jon, and his single mother, Debbie. Jon was a very bright young man, but like many other “smart” students, he was flunking out of most of his classes.

Two years before we met, Debbie had become very ill and was off work for several months. She fell behind on her bills and was forced to move in with her parents (who lived 350 miles away), leaving behind Jon’s father and 19-year-old brother.  Jon had been grieving their “loss” ever since. During a couple of their screaming matches, Jon had accused Debbie of ruining his life for taking him away from his Dad and brother.

Debbie told me several stories about fights that would start over homework and escalate into a lot more. “I don’t understand,” she said, “We used to have some arguments over homework, but we never had problems like this before we moved.”

I replied, “He wants control.”

She sat quiet for a long time and then began to cry.  She said, “I remember one night… after we both settled down from one of our worst fights. I asked him, ‘Why do you treat me that way, Jon?’  He replied, ‘Because, Mom, that is the only way I can control you.'”

Debbie and Jon’s situation is on the more extreme end of the “homework argument spectrum,” but their story is not uncommon; fights and arguments over homework are much more common that most families think.  

The key to reducing that tension is to understand what is causing it in the first place.

Why Does Homework Cause So Much Grief?

Perhaps you’ve always assumed that your child puts up a fight because they don’t like homework.  The core issue goes much deeper than that.  As Jon told his mother so clearly, he wanted control.

We all want it and children spend their entire lives going after it.  When your child was a toddler, did they snap at you for trying to help her with something?  My mom recalls a favorite phrase of my early childhood years: “Me do it myself!”  Now, my three year-old daughter repeats the same thing to me.

Of course, now that your child is a young adult with school responsibilities, you are wishing they would, in fact, “do it themselves” so you wouldn’t have to argue about it. But, from your child’s perspective, that would be giving you all of the power.

Children learn at a very early age that homework gives them leverage for control–and power–because you place a high value on it.  If this innate desire for control is not satisfied in a constructive way (and let’s face it: that’s often hard for us to manage), children will seek other ways to acquire it. Homework is one of the most visible targets.

Homework battles may range from mild frustrations to wars within the family. The severity is usually based on the degree of discontent or turmoil that a child is feeling in any aspect of his life.

What Can I Do About It?

You win this battle by giving your child some control.  Of course, you must still set limits, but a good helping of control is good for all of us from time to time.

why does homework cause so much grief

How Do You Give a Child Control?

By providing choices.  When a child is given choices, everyone wins.  They win because they feel like they have a say in the matter.  You win because you have limited the choices to two (or three) options, all of which you consider acceptable.

For example, if your child has a science test on Friday, you may suggest, “Would you like to study for your test an hour on Tuesday and Thursday, or would you like to spend a half hour studying every night this week?”  Another option: “You will need to study for your science test tonight. Would you like to do it before or after dinner?”

Even letting your child choose what to have for dinner can go a long way; it builds communication and sends the message that you value their input. For situations that are a little more involved, like Jon and Debbie’s, providing choices may only be the first step, but its importance cannot be overstated!

To ease frustrations caused by school and learning, get your child started with study skills.

Susan Kruger  Susan Kruger is the author of SOAR Study Skills; A Simple and Efficient System for Earning Better Grades in Less Time and founder of StudySkills.com. Get Susan’s FREE Guide, Six Steps to Conquer the Chaos: How to Organize and Motivate Students for Success