Under Pressure

What do you do when your middle school child struggles with homework? Or when the pressure and grades seem to get in the way of their education? Reflections on the struggles of parenting a middle school child, along with a crazy idea that goes against everything we’re taught as parents.

I feel kind of old saying this out loud, but it’s finals week here in the Six house. Elena is in 7th grade this year, and for the first time in her school career, finals week is a thing. And it matters.

Of course, tests and doing well in school have always mattered to us. We view school as her “job,” and we expect her to give her best effort. But we also see school as one part of the pie, if you will. Yes, it’s very important. But it also isn’t everything. There are lots of opportunities to exercise your body and mind, to grow and learn, that take place out of school. There must be time for play. And there must always be time to just relax. As seriously as we take school, and expect her to take school, we also try to emphasize the balance. Sometimes, there are things that are more important than busywork.

In past years, this has been fairly easy to balance. Until she transitioned to public school from Montessori in 4th grade, she never had homework. Upon entering public school she tested into the district’s gifted program. You would imagine that this might mean more homework, but we found the opposite of that to be true. She had some, for sure, but it wasn’t every day, and it was always reasonable.

Junior high, it seems, is where that party ends. It’s been a struggle this year, for both of us. She has 6 classes, and in each of those classes it is not unusual for each teacher to assign homework. It doesn’t seem like much to each teacher, probably – twenty or thirty minutes per class. But multiply twenty minutes by 6 classes? Suddenly she’s faced with two hours of homework each night. Add to that a requirement of 2 1/2 hours of instrument practice outside of school each week, and suddenly the concept of play and free time become something of fairy tales or mythology. Does it even exist?

It’s a struggle for her – to keep up, to not burn out, to do her best day in and day out. It’s a struggle for us. It’s hard to watch your kid be expected to do things most adults wouldn’t stand for. Imagine this: you leave for work every day at 7 a.m. From 7:30 until 2:30, you’re in meeting after meeting. You’re listening, taking notes, trying to understand the message. At the end of each meeting, you’re given a task to complete. No biggie, right? You’ll get it done after the meeting, right? Only there is no “after the meeting” scheduled into your work day. You get a short break for lunch, and forty minutes at the end of the day to tie up any loose ends. Then you go home. Now, this is where the average adult worker would call it a day. They’d spend time with their family, run their errands, take care of personal things, relax, live their life. On a hectic week at work, they might have to bring some work home, but it wouldn’t be expected every day.

That’s not what I see for these kids in my community. After 7 hours of school, they come home and dive right into another 2-3 hours of homework. If they get started on it right after school, on a good night, they might have an hour or two to relax before bed. But what if it’s a gorgeous afternoon, and they want to toss the football or ride their bikes to Taco Bell with their friends? What if they have sports or other extra-curricular activities after school? Well, you’re looking at homework into the 9 and 10 o’clock hour. Then it’s up-and-at-em again at 6 a.m. the next morning. Ask any adult to do this, day in and day out for 9 months out of the year and they’d tell you where to shove it.

There’s not a lot parents can do in this more-is-better culture we live in. You can homeschool, but that isn’t the ideal or realistic option for everyone (and certainly not for our family). If you have the means, you can look for a private school that better meets your family philosophy. You can rebel against the system, and do it your own way – maybe you draw the line at an hour of homework each day. Maybe you sit down together and decide what assignments are worth the time and which seem frivolous. But at what cost? When those grades and those classes start counting towards that all-important G.P.A., what choice do you have then? (And at this point, kids in junior high are already taking high school level classes that count towards their high school G.P.A.)

There is the valid argument that this builds character. Do we want to raise a generation of kids that can’t rise to a challenge? I’m all for giving kids at this age opportunities to hone their time management skills. It’s an essential life skill, and you know how we feel about teaching valuable life skills here at The Risky Kids. Instead, I feel as if we’re inadvertently teaching these kids a different concept: burn-out. This week, of all weeks, when Elena should be looking forward to putting her knowledge to the test and completing a semester well done, she’s simply DONE. One teacher even assigned a homework worksheet in between a two-part final!

If it were simply a matter of pushing through, and reassuring these kids that their best effort was enough, that if they’re learning and mastering concepts regardless of the grade it’s all good, then I’d probably not get up on my soapbox. But it’s not enough.

Next semester, Elena is switching math classes. She’s moving down from 2-year advanced math to 1-year advanced. The material is moving too fast for her, and she’s not mastering the concepts before they move on. Now mind you, this is a high school class, offered for 7th graders. When I told her that the move down meant that she’d take Chemistry as a sophomore instead of as a freshman, she started to panic. She had to take Chemistry as a freshman, she said, otherwise she’d fall behind. Where did she get such a notion? From a workshop on college prep that she had in school a few weeks ago. “Hopefully I’ll still get into college,” she said. And she was completely serious.

You know what I was worried about as a 7th grader? If I had my Kirk Cameron posters lined up straight above my bed.

We have a mission in our family, one that spills over into the philosophy of The Risky Kids: to raise competent, independent, well-rounded kids. Kids who love books and tech. Kids who climb trees and move mountains. Kids who can do laundry and quadratic equations. Kids who can work and play. If that means being the weird family who looks at this gerbil wheel of stress, competition, and relentless pressure that is conventional schooling and says, “Thanks, but no thanks,” then so be it. I would rather have a kid in community college that can look back fondly at their childhood (and yes, your tween and teen years are still your childhood to claim and enjoy), than one in a prestigious college with anxiety.

The easy part is deciding this path isn’t for us. The hard part is convincing these kids it will all be okay.

Those of you in the trenches with tweens and teens, I’d love to hear from you. Is this your experience as well? If you’re on the other side of this life stage, I’d love to hear from you, too. How did you get through it?

Share