On Being The Homework Police

I am convinced that parenting is something we never really know how to do until we are done. This notion comes to mind when I think of my son, Greg, who was so bright and capable as a child and is now a bright, capable adult. There are moments every so often when I want to give myself some of the credit for Greg’s talents and accomplishments. But there are also times when I am certain that he has arrived at them not because of my wisdom but in spite of my mistakes – one of which was appointing myself the homework police.

Misguided Efforts
Greg had ADHD, the inattentive type. He was among of the 80% whose ADHD was genetic in origin and who have first-degree relatives with a history of the same condition. In his case, the relative was me (another story for another day). As Greg moved through the middle grades and high school, he was increasingly bedeviled by one of his ADHD’s most prominent manifestations, his difficulty with homework – planning it, starting it, keeping it on track, and getting it done. Even though I had faced the same challenges at the same age and even though at some level I probably knew better, I nonetheless did what so many other parents of ADHD kids have done. I concluded that Greg’s problem was a lack of skill or will and decided that the best person to fix it was me.

That was why I took my place as household chief of the homework police, activating a dynamic of discord and frustration that endured for several years. It grew mostly out of the things I did in an effort to make Greg’s homework happen – things that included tutoring, skill-building, quizzing, cajoling, lecturing, bribing, pressuring, threatening, punishing, stomping, and arguing. Lots of arguing, with far too many of my words uttered in anger. I tried to teach him time management, goal setting, task planning, impulse control, self-talk, and other executive functioning techniques, some of them improvised and many of them more complicated than the homework they were intended to assist. When it became clear that my own efforts had been unsuccessful, I even tried sending Greg to a boarding school that claimed to provide an effective program for ADHD kids. Its interventions exceeded mine in cost but not in benefit.

Hard Lessons
While Greg was away, I came to the realization that I had been on the wrong track all along. I recognized that none of my police work had produced any positive change in Greg’s homework, in his study skills, or in his grades, which all along he had managed to keep above C level. I saw that I had been pressuring him in the distorted belief that his struggle as a student could only signify my failure as a parent. I came to understand that my obstinacy had brought added stress to the fabric of the family. And above all, I realized that the most palpable outcome of my homework supervision had been harm to a father-son connection that had always been much stronger. Greg returned to the local high school for his senior year, and at the outset I told him what I had learned in his absence. I explained that my relationship with him was far more important to me than those nightly assignments could ever be. And I resigned forever from my self-appointed position with the department of homework enforcement.

When I look back on all this, I think of my favorite Bob Seger lyric: “Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” One reason I didn’t know it was that, at the time, so much good research was incomplete and so much current information was unavailable. Had it been, I would have understood that ADHD is not a lack of willpower but a neurological condition, one largely rooted in the evolution of the human species. I would have been aware that ultimately it is a problem of self-regulation, that a parent’s greatest potential for positive impact begins with a positive attachment (relationship), and that the most effective parenting interventions are those which focus less on fixing deficits and more on building strengths. I would have seen that all my arguments with Greg were as much about my issues as his and that we never resolved them because we were really arguing about different things – me about an irrational need for him to do things my way and him about the much more rational need for greater independence and acceptance. Most importantly, I would have recognized that my homework “help” had actually resulted in little help and, I now believe, too much hurt.

The Good News
So how did it all turn out? Without any policing from me, Greg finished high school and went on to college, where he found a major that retained his attention and gave him opportunities to learn not by struggling with his deficits but by exploiting his strengths in listening, communication, abstract thinking, and personal computing. He graduated in four years with good grades and now works for Apple, where he continues to call on the same strengths as he teaches the rest of us how to use some of the more complex software that runs on the company’s devices. He has also become a gifted and artful photographer with an acute eye for the things that most people never see.

Has his ADHD ceased to be a roadblock? Not completely. But for Greg – as for me and so many other ADHD people – the condition has become just another of the surmountable life obstacles we face every day. All things considered, I think Greg is doing just fine. I also think he is doing it because of who he is – and not because of his adolescent brush with the homework police.