My daughter does her homework at our kitchen table at 5:30 p.m. while I cleanse lettuce leaves and roast asparagus for dinner. There are tears, very occasionally, and, more often, annoyed rants at social studies worksheets. She’s lucky if she gets an hour of play in the backyard.

Today children are overburdened and overscheduled, and so they are, in effect, losing the freedom to be kids—that is to say, losing unstructured time to run around and play. In four books published over the past year, we see that the calls for reducing homework and increasing playtime are reaching a crescendo. But these books also remind us that we as a society are still very far from bringing our day-to-day lives in line with these lofty goals.
In In The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, Alfie Kohn vigorously documents the extent of today’s homework craze, and its impact on children and families. (Full disclosure: Kohn is a member of Greater Good’s editorial board.)

“The most striking trend regarding homework in the past two decades is the tendency to pile more and more of it on younger and younger children,” he writes, citing a long-term national survey of several thousand families, which shows that “the proportion of six- to eight-year-old children who reported having homework on a given day had climbed from 34 percent in 1981 to 58 percent in 1997, and the weekly time spent studying at home more than doubled for youngsters of these ages.”

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One mother quoted in Kohn’s book illustrates the real-life impact of these abstract statistics: “School for [my son] is work, and by the end of a seven-hour workday, he is exhausted. But like a worker on a double shift, he has to keep going” after he gets home, completing worksheets and exercises for school. Just as parents struggle to balance work, family, and their own private needs and desires, so our children must now struggle to find their own balance.

It’s a long-term trend confirmed by the Brown University historian Howard P. Chudacoff in his new book, Children at Play: An American History. He frames the history of play as a struggle between children and the adults who wish to use and colonize their playtime—sometimes for the protection and edification of children, but more and more for corporate profits. Chudacoff shows how once upon a time, children played with toys like blocks and dolls that encouraged the free reign of their imaginations; today, play is a multi-billion dollar business in which every toy comes with a backstory from a movie, comic book, TV show, or video game, or has a strict educational purpose.

Thus children’s free time is attacked on one side by schools that wish to utilize every spare moment for rote learning, and on the other by toy and video game manufacturers who would have children pay to play. Chudacoff argues that children have ably defended themselves against the latter, still managing to create their own autonomous spaces for play and successfully imposing their imaginations on new electronic toys. But Kohn shows how they are far more helpless in the face of homework, which threatens real-world consequences against any child who dares to resist doing it.

Indeed, as a parent, I’m ready as can be to side with those who argue that our children are given way too much homework—that what they really need are backyards, nearby playgrounds, and adults to keep watch as they play tetherball and create imaginary forts. But in a society in which no workweek can have too many hours and the price of failure is poverty and marginalization, it’s very hard for an individual family to reject homework and all the values and pressures it represents. If we put more emphasis on playtime, we worry that we might lead our children off the conventional—and, we desperately hope, assured—pathway of success.

The tragedy, Kohn argues, is that “widespread assumptions about the benefits of homework—higher achievement and the promotion of such virtues as self-discipline and responsibility—aren’t substantiated by the available evidence.” The case Kohn builds against homework is damning, and in The Homework Myth, he successfully severs the link between the volume of homework and real academic accomplishment.
Kohn isn’t alone in his opinion. In fact, he is reflecting the consensus of a large number of child development and learning experts. In Play=Learning: How Play Motivates and Enhances Children’s Cognitive and Social-Emotional Growth, leading researchers show that today’s children actually play less with peers, which damages their health and development. The social scientific essays in Play=Learning dramatically extend Kohn’s case and provide substantial empirical evidence in support of protecting children from the educational forces that structure their time so insistently.

There is something in all three books that feels almost dangerous. Their fact-based arguments collide with the deepest fears of parents in a capitalist society, who worry their children will fall behind other people’s children. It’s a testament to how solidly the values of conventional achievement get lodged in our minds—and the extent to which progressive culture, too, has embodied these values—that it seems vaguely transgressive to question the degree of work that we and our children are asked to do. To some ears, it sounds lazy, even neglectful to resist this work, given the fear of failure and economic marginalization hovering nearby. And so if we resist homework and scheduling every second of our kids’ lives with lessons and activities, we walk an odd and intriguing line. It’s nostalgic, in one sense—harking back to a simpler time—and yet forward-thinking in challenging our society’s deepest myths and values.

Of course, the effects of an accelerated, hyper-competitive society not only define homework and play but the day-to-day existence of families in today’s society as well. “In fast capitalism, parents become children in the sense that their needs come first and children become parents in the sense that they stay home alone and confront adultlike expectations,” write University of Texas sociologists Ben Agger and Beth Ann Shelton in Fast Families, Virtual Children: A Critical Sociology of Families and Schooling. Agger and Shelton expand on the case against homework by providing a bigger sociological picture of the economic and cultural forces shaping the family, school, and society.

How might we counter the demands of “fast capitalism”? The vision Agger and Shelton propose is not simply to “restore” the family to a more traditional configuration. They aren’t longing for a family structure built on the labor of women and the bondage of children. Instead, they propose a commitment to let children truly be children, unharried and unhurried. They dare to envision family and school as institutions that can be intimate, communal, and mutualistic, structures that can model a decent society—and perhaps, by their very existence, help bring one into being.

Instead of modeling schools on factories and shaping them to be prisons, with their codes of silence and surveillance, the authors argue, we ought to model our schools on American democratic expressions of freedom and self-development. In their utopian model, schools provide the meeting ground between work and family, a place that is slower and gentler and a refuge from overload. In short, “children need a bill of rights, schools need to be freeing, and capitalism must be slowed and rendered less invasive.” At the same time, they argue, parents have the responsibility to avoid cynicism and rote learning, while also teaching social and political awareness, modeling good self-care and a healthy life-balance, and providing opportunities for children to have a voice in the decisions that affect their lives.

Of all these books, Agger and Shelton do the best job of fusing social science with a broad, positive vision—and yet they still do little to show parents and educators how to journey from the world as it is to the world we truly want. I would love to see social scientists like the contributors to Play=Learning sit down with advocates like Kohn to discuss where parents like me can begin to foster change, and how.

Kohn does make a number of concrete recommendations for educators, arguing that “no homework” should become the default setting and each after-school assignment should face a high threshold of justification. His argument might be having an impact: Recently, the teachers at my daughter’s school had an institution-wide conversation that resulted in lowering the amount of homework they assign. That helps me as a parent, and I believe it’s good for my daughter. For decades, Americans have seemed to forget what was most important in life: fun, health, and time with family, friends, and neighbors. Perhaps today we are taking small steps toward a new balance, but we still have very far to go.

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