By Karen Grossman, author of the blog Mom in the Muddle
Six years of homework. But who’s counting? It started out okay, but after long kindergarten days my son discovered he really just wanted to play. He sat in his seat, behaved, and did his work at school. Did he really have to do it again at home? “I did this all day at school!” he’d growl through tears over his homework.
I couldn’t blame him. But I had to be tough. “Just do it and in ten minutes it will be over,” I’d offer. By first grade it sunk in. Ever since, he has come home and whipped through his homework at lightning speed—unless he didn’t understand something. Then the probability of a peaceful afternoon was zero. I’d calmly explain the lesson every way that I could, but it was never how the teacher explained it. I’d show him again but he wanted me to work the problem or just give him the answer. He’d squirm and whine and yell and roll on the floor and throw his pencil. Please, just give him the calculator.
Enter his sister. Repeat the scenario. Some afternoons she hid under the kitchen table in tears. Some afternoons I wanted to hide under the kitchen table in tears, but there wasn’t room for us both.
Now that my kids are in third and fifth grades, they’ve come a long way with homework. My son is getting to a point in math where I may not be able to help him much longer. He’s learning strategies I’ve never seen before. Lattice multiplication. Different methods of division. Isn’t there just one? Even though math is my least favorite subject, I’ve always been able to tackle it with my kids when they’ve struggled. Now I’ve even caught my son helping my daughter with her homework. I quietly tiptoed away, feeling pride and a slight defeat knowing one day she will have no choice but to go to him.
My son recently tried to teach me some of his new lessons. He made up some homework for me. I told him he didn’t have to, but he insisted. He wanted to show me this new base five numeration because he didn’t think I’d be able to do it. I think he wanted to see me fail. I’m not sure my son knows how much I despise math, how I would squirm as my dad tried to explain it to me at night, or how I just wanted someone to give me the answers. And that was in high school.
I took one look at the problems my son wrote for me and knew I couldn’t figure them out. Even more, I had no desire. I had gotten through nearly 40 years without that crazy business that was staring at me. I knew I could get through 40 more. I tried to put on a good show for my son and give it a try. No fits, no yelling, no squirming in my chair. After a few seconds, I rubbed my head, looked around, squirmed in my chair, and felt like yelling.
He was watching me, smiling. “Do you give up?”
He was so excited to show me how to solve the problem, so of course I let him. I didn’t even know where to begin. He showed me the first part. I had to do the rest of it. He guided me through.
It would take me 30 more minutes to finish the page. I just could not bond with him over math. After that first problem, I threw in the pencil and gave up. “I think that’s good for now,” I said as I balled up the paper. It was getting close to bedtime anyway.
As we walked upstairs, he explained base five and base ten numeration. I really can’t go into more detail because I tuned him out. I heard talking. I saw his eager face. I smiled and nodded and spoke like I understood, but his words sounded like mumbo-jumbo to me. I felt like I was back listening to my dad again all those years ago.
But something else was going through my mind. He’s not like me. He’s excited about math. He gets it. And that was the part I really paid attention to.