Mama Says : Holiday homework – pop quiz for parents
by Laura Fratus

(Plain Press, January 2006) So, parents. Did you finish The Packet?

You know which packet I mean. The surprise packet of enriching learning experiences — otherwise known as Holiday Homework — that was sent home with all those empty candy cane wrappers and glitter-and-glue creations during the week before Christmas?

If you never saw it, it may still be buried at the bottom of the backpack, which is still wedged under the back seat of the minivan, exactly where your gleeful child kicked it for safe keeping on the last day of school before winter break. Give that good child a cookie.

After all, that packet of reading comprehension activities and math review was clearly not intended for your child. It was an evil little present for you, the parent, to be opened amid the hubbub of the year’s busiest and most stressful time. It was a sort of parenting pop quiz.

Let’s face it: in the early grades, all homework is as much about training the parents as it is about educating the child. Sure, periodically one encounters homework prodigies who, beginning in preschool, are imbued with a work ethic and a precocious awareness of how their future prosperity hinges on completing today’s color-by-number.

But for the most part, elementary school homework is a contest of guile, will and endurance between the resisting child and the beleaguered parent.

For most of the school year, I accept the role I must play as homework enforcer. I accept the reality of School Nights as a cultural expectation, even if in my heart I oppose the idea of arbitrarily extending the work day of children who already spent at least 6 ½ hours with their noses to the grindstone.

But holiday homework, that’s another thing entirely. I put assigning holiday homework in the same category of anti-child activities as handing out snack packs of raisins at Halloween. Very sensible and healthy, on the surface, but peek underneath, and you recognize the product of a sinister mind.

The winter holidays are themselves laden with a heavy burden of conflicting cultural expectations for parents. During the entire month of December, we struggled to balance the expectation of making our children’s fondest wishes come true with the equally rigorous expectation that we raise up children to be unselfish, grateful and angelically devout. We tried to keep kids on task through weeks of school when the only thing their minds could really focus on was whether Santa would consider that a wish list including both an Xbox 360 and a Segway was evidence of naughty greed.

Parents who are willing to meet the school's demand that they  browbeat their children into completing twenty-five pages of homework in the week between Christmas and New Year's are the same parents who would have taken them to a holiday concert, gone sledding in the park, baked cookies together — all of which are at least as enriching and educational as anything The Packet had to offer.

I considered boycotting the packet, leading my offspring in a revolt against holiday homework tyranny. I even sent a note to school hinting that this might be my plan. But then the teacher played her trump card: the class would earn a pizza party if everyone turned in completed packets. Visions of my son — ostracized for his non-conformity — danced in my head. I conformed.

We held our noses and completed the packet in one marathon homework session, like a dose of castor oil. The first morning of our so-called vacation was spent whipping through it with all the care and concentration it so richly deserved. And then parent and child alike cast off the shackles of homework and danced a merry holiday jig before getting on with the real, serious business of family holiday time, together.


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