The Magical Year My Daughter Was Given No Homework

flickr / Justin Vidamo
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Last September, I received the greatest gift. It was a warm, clear evening. About 100 parents crowded into an elementary school library. Four teachers stood at the front of the room and described the third-grade curriculum. My wife and I were curious. It was a new city, a new district, a new school for our daughter. How do they do things here, we wondered.

It turned out they do things like most public schools in America. Readin’, writin’, ‘rithmetic. Report cards. Standardized tests. Then came the gift. Not magic beans or a new car or a sex robot. It was America’s favorite gift: freedom.

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One of the teachers explained. “This year, we’re not assigning homework. We expect a lot of the kids during the day, and when they go home, we want them to have time for unstructured play.”

I turned to my wife and grinned like an idiot. I thought of other parents, far away in the town we’d just left, haranguing their children every night, desperate to burn through a stack of worksheets filled with vocabulary words and division problems before bathtime and storytime and bedtime. I drifted into a waking dream, imagining the carefree frolic of empty afternoons that lay ahead. My daughter wouldn’t have homework. That meant I wouldn’t have homework either!

Because let’s be honest here. When an 8-year-old has a school assignment, it’s really an assignment for her parents. No, I’m not hunched over a child-sized desk sweating out the solution to 13×27. But I am cajoling, bribing, and threatening all evening to make sure she’s hunched over that desk. Hear me now: homework destroys lives. And, after a year without it, I have a sneaking suspicion that’s the point.

Let me pause here. There’s a distinction between busywork for grade schoolers and research projects for teenagers. The life-destroying homework I’m talking about is of the preprinted, fill-in-the-blank, rote regurgitation variety. It fosters no insights, spawns no epiphanies, adorns no refrigerators. It simply insists upon itself, to prove that it can make a child give over a fraction of her life in the name of obligation.

There’s a perverse desire lurking in the hearts of certain grown-ups. A conviction that Brayydynn needs to learn how to buckle down and be a man now that he can ride a bike without falling over. He needs to quit dallying and shoulder responsibility without complaint. This viewpoint is really projection as punishment. I’m miserable in my life, so I better make sure you’re miserable too. That way, you’ll know how to act when you’re my age and miserable.

Think about your job. If you own a smartphone, you’re never not at work. Not really. You answer client emails in bed, request meetings at the breakfast table and read LinkedIn posts during dinner. Every fast-paced workplace requires people who crave multiple projects to juggle simultaneously, who fill out TPS reports all day long without complaint. It’s sprint ahead or fall behind and fail. Adults are allowed to deal with this constant stress by drinking beer and smoking weed (in the cool states). But not kids! So we can either push for Juicy Juice Pale Ale, or we can pump the brakes on the paperwork expectations for grade schoolers.

Here’s a short list of what my daughter and I have done after school instead of doing homework. We’ve explored a lake on a rowboat. We’ve visited the natural history museum to stare at the skull of a triceratops. We’ve gone beachcombing at sunset. We’ve dropped in at the bakery, meandered around islands, and taken the car in for service. (Not everything has been fun for her.) I’ve shuttled her around to cello lessons and swim lessons and soccer games. (Not everything has been fun for me either.)

Here’s something else she’s done: pursued her own interests. She’s checked out cookbooks from the library, and we’ve worked on recipes together. She and a group of friends have started a weekly class newsletter. She’s set up a sidewalk lemonade stand. She’s taught her little brother how to identify birds and poison ivy (in a loving way — not the wipe-your-butt-with-it way I would have used with my younger brother).

And shouldn’t a kid whose age is measured in single digits have the chance to do such things? Isn’t this the time of life to follow a will o’ the wisp fleeting interest into robotics or chess or gardening or theater? To experiment and to fail? Constant high-stakes, graded homework germinates in the young mind the idea that any mistake will cost you. Sure, most of what any kid my daughter’s age gets interested in won’t turn out to be a career or a lifelong passion, but that’s the point. It’s called childhood.

For years after college, I had nightmares about overdue papers, midterms I’d forgotten about. I still remember the dread of high school homework. Explicating poems, deciphering geometry theorems and balancing chemical equations. Know what I don’t remember? Anxiety about third-grade homework. I didn’t have any! After school, I rode my bike around the neighborhood and splashed through creeks looking for crawfish. I pretended to be GI Joe and Voltron and He-Man. In other words, I got to be a kid. And sure, I’m not a brain surgeon, but I’m also not a dummy. I did just fine without worksheets. My daughter will too.

People who demand piles of homework for little kids have forgotten that lots of learning takes place outside of a curriculum. They want a paper trail of gold stars and smiley faces to prove that little Brayydynn is way, way smarter than that toad Braideyn down the street. They’ve taken the perfectly understandable desire to measure the effectiveness of a teacher or a school or a district and trickled that down to the kids in class. If the munchkins scribble through a dozen worksheets every weeknight, well then they must not be stupidheads.

My daughter is a typical kid, and I’m a stay-at-home-dad. I realize how privileged those statements are. What if I worked two jobs or second shift? What if she had a learning disability? What if she lived in a single-parent household, or a foster home? What if our neighborhood was full of derelict buildings instead of landscaped yards? No way in hell she’s doing 80 multiplication problems every night. And each missing assignment would persuade her bit by bit that she’s no good, unworthy, unteachable, a disappointment. She would grow to dread school and hate her teachers, who would brand her as lazy and lacking grit. A problem child. As it stands now, I practically have to drag her off the property every afternoon because she loves school so much.

This year of freedom is nothing I asked for. I didn’t demand it. I didn’t occupy the principal’s office with my pinko commie pals. The teachers made this decision because they have enough confidence in their curriculum, classroom management skills and school administration to rely on the school day. The kids are held to high standards, and they follow a strict schedule. But when they’re outside the classroom — at recess, at home — that’s the time for play.

An added bonus: no more grading homework assignments! As bad as it is having to strong-arm one kid through a pile of worksheets, imagine having to grade the stack of worksheets from 20 kids! I’m exhausted just thinking about it. And what’s better in the long run — a teacher who burns the midnight oil marking up busywork, or one who’s given free time of her own every evening? To unwind, decompress, take a walk, ponder a fresh way to reach that kid who doesn’t understand sentence structure.

Most teachers work hard on behalf of the kids in their classes. If you want to give the gift of no homework to yourself, enlist them in your cause. Work with them and the PTA to create a unified front. If the school administration and the faculty know that lots of parents support the idea, they’re more likely to give it a whirl, knowing that they’ll have a buffer against the inevitable masochists who begin crowing about back-in-my-day toughness.

It’s the last month of school here. Summer awaits. Beyond that, fourth grade. I don’t know what I’ll hear some warm evening next September. But what I’m hoping for is another gift. If I can’t have no homework again, I’d at least like a sex robot.

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