When I was in first grade—three decades ago—I don’t remember there being much homework. And I definitely don’t remember being stressed out about homework.
Times have changed.
For my son, first grade means homework at least every other night. And the teacher expects it to be done and turned in on time. It’s serious business. And my son takes it very seriously.
Unlike me, he’s a perfectionist. He’s also rigid in his thinking. If something’s not going well, or takes a surprising turn, he gets upset.
So he treats each worksheet that comes home as a precious thing. It must be completed and returned. Done, on time and just the way the teacher wants it.
In a lot of ways, that’s a good thing—until it isn’t.
A few weeks ago, I found my son at the dining room table trying to finish a writing worksheet he’d brought back from school. He was supposed to copy down words from a list. But he hadn’t gotten far. He was writing then erasing furiously, each time getting more and more frustrated.
“Hey there, how’s it going?” I asked.
Totally engrossed, he didn’t notice me.
I touched his shoulder. “How’s the homework going?”
Startled, he glanced at me, with a glassy look in his eyes and an unsure frown. I could see that he’d erased the same spot of the paper so much that a hole had ripped open on the worksheet.
I gently took the pencil away from him.
“You’re not going to be able to write it there. I’ll get a piece of tape and—”
“No! Mrs. B won’t like it like that,” he blurted out, angrily. “I need to do the letters.” He grabbed the pencil back and turned toward the sheet again.
He was sniffling a bit, and I backed off to give him some space.
Later, I asked him to play some Foosball with me, which he did. His mood was a little lighter, as he spun the Foosball rods and scored a goal. I decided to talk to him.
“You had a hard time with homework, right?”
“You know, it doesn’t have to be perfect. You’re practicing to get better.”
“I want my homework like everyone else’s. I want to be good in school.”
A million thoughts went through my head. My son has been getting so many messages—from us, from his teachers and from classmates—about how important school is. He’d clearly internalized this, in good and perhaps not-so-good ways.
I took a deep breath, remembering something Jim Rein had written recently on Understood. I said, “School is important, and Mom and I expect the best effort. But school isn’t everything. We love you no matter what. You’re a great kid, no matter what.”
He nodded and we were quiet for a minute.
“Want to play Foosball again?” I asked.
A grin came over his face. “Yes, and I’m going to school you.”
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About the author
Andrew M.I. Lee, JD is an editor and attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.