February 26, 2016
By Ekta R. Garg
Okay, it’s now official: I hate homework.
I started school at the age of three and graduated at 23 with my master’s degree. No stops in the middle, just 20 solid years of papers and pep rallies, tests and (in the middle) teenage trials. And, of course, homework. Mounds of it. Reams of it. Hundreds of No. 2 pencils sharpened, dulled, and sharpened again.
Somewhere along the way I looked at adults and thought, I can’t wait to be a grownup so I don’t have to do homework anymore.
[Insert loud, long buzzer here.]
On Tuesday, in addition to a couple of other assignments, Nine brought home 24 math problems, all fractions.
I say the following with the utmost of humility: My elder child is really good at math. She loves to read, craving any extra minutes in the day to consume the latest book on her nightstand, so her vocabulary and grammar test scores have always been high. But she’s often scored just as high, or even higher, on the math side of the standardized tests.
The fact that she doesn’t look forward to math, despite her talent with it, is a different issue altogether.
I’ve spent a lot of time with this child in helping her work through and, when it’s a really good day, avoid meltdowns over her math homework. We’ve spent hours talking about how she feels during those moments of frustration, how to handle them, how to head them off before they even begin. Sometimes reviewing those talking points during an actual meltdown has helped; other times it’s made things worse.
After the last couple of years, though, I can say that the graph trends up. We’ve made progress. Enough, in fact, that when we slide back to the greatest hits of the old days, it drives me nuts.
On Tuesday Nine brought home 24 math problems, all fractions. These weren’t difficult problems. Each one contained three fractions, a variety of them—mixed numbers and improper fractions—and Nine had to either add or subtract the fractions or do a combination of both.
Again, nothing too difficult. But as good as she is at math, occasionally fractions trip Nine up. So when I saw the fractions, a tremor of anxiety rippled across my brain. But I crossed my fingers.
She did the math problems and went on to the rest of her assignments. As is our routine, I started checking her homework and the tremor of anxiety turned into a shudder. I fought it back, but when I told Nine that she got many of the problems wrong she rolled her eyes and whined.
I told her to take a break and go practice her music. I wanted her to interrupt the whining circuits in her brain, hoping that she would come back a little calmer. After all, music is supposed to be soothing, right?
Not in this case. She came back, whining just as loud as ever. The shudder of panic inside of me became borderline epileptic.
I’ve only been a parent for nine years now, so I don’t have it all down pat just yet, but I’ve figured out enough to know that the effectiveness of yelling only lasts so long. It works better as a tool used selectively. So I knew I couldn’t yell. I also knew that with the number of problems Nine had gotten wrong, it would take a while to get through them and I really didn’t want to be seething through all of the work ahead of us.
I sat her down and showed her the work I’d done to solve the math problems, and I told her I would even let her see my answers for the first few fractions so she could understand what I was doing. Nine had tried to do most of the computations for each problem in her head, jotting down a few numbers here or there where it suited her. Even for something as easy as addition or subtraction, however, when you’re doing a multi-step problem and you’re trying to keep all of the information in your brain instead of writing it down as you solve, at some point the brain is going to shut down and need a reboot.
This has been the main sticking point for this child, and we’ve talked about this in circles through these last few years. And then had to calculate the radius and diameter of those circles, all while writing our answers down along the way.
During the first problem I swear I could feel her rolling her eyes at me behind those dark irises, but she didn’t say anything. I knew she was thinking that I had handled the problem in a “babyish” sort of way, writing down every single computation and copying numbers over and over as I brought them down from one line to the next. Nevertheless, I walked her through the entire problem step by step: turning all of the mixed numbers into improper fractions, finding the lowest common denominator, using little tricks (like doing work inside of the parentheses first but still bringing down numbers outside of the parentheses in every line of the problem so she wouldn’t forget them.)
We worked through the first ten together, and then I suggested she try the next one herself. The anxiety I’d felt earlier showed up in her own face, but I reassured her that I would be steps away in the kitchen and I would come back any time she needed me. By the fourth or fifth problem on her own, the anxiety began to abate. By the tenth problem, I saw her sweet smile come back.
I made her work through every single math problem—because with the exception of two, she’d gotten all of the others wrong, and all because of stupid mistakes due to trying to do everything in her head—and with breaks for dinner and other things, she worked on the math for several hours. I hated that she went to bed almost an hour later than her usual bedtime, but I also wanted to give her something big that she could carry forward in subsequent math assignments.
Reassurance. The kind of reassurance that comes from learning how to use math principles and then applying them. And then seeing positive results by getting those math problems right.
When I went to bed myself later, I felt good about what I’d done. I’d controlled my temper, I’d equipped Nine with the tools she needed to solve more complicated problems in the future, and I hadn’t missed a beat in the nightly routine of our home. Which brought me to an important realization.
Oh, how I hate homework.