Our six-year-old comes back from school with homework now, which strikes me as incredibly dangerous. There’s a reason we don’t pack our children off to school with an hour of our own unfinished business.
Despite the objective dangers, homework is surprisingly popular in our house. Our six-year-old races upstairs to do his, and our three-year-old feels left out if we don’t invent some for him too. The problem is that when small children get homework, a grown-up has to help. And I’m torn when it comes to helping. We all know it’s important. It’s just that the more you become associated with spelling lists and handwriting practice, the less you are able to play the equally vital role of curmudgeon.
There are things a parent can teach their children that professional teachers would get sent to the headmaster for. For example, I can prove, showing my working, that learning to get on with the other children in the playground is six times more important than being the first to learn the six times table. Or I can demonstrate, using examples, that once those kids have left school it doesn’t matter who can recite their tables anyway, because numerate people will get fleeced while people who screw up their six trillion times table will get bailed out and the bailers will get seats on the board.
Schools can’t teach this stuff, because it’s downright subversive, and I’m aware that not everyone will agree with the approach. Parenting is precisely the teaching we don’t agree on.
Homework is the stuff, such as times tables that we do. My concern for my children is that if I become the times table guy, I can’t also be the guy who is their dad.
A great many teachers would like and would deserve more leeway to educate our children in the round, but currently their hands are tied. Yeats wrote that “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire,” and the art of teaching has always been marked by feuding between the pail-fillers, with their Sats and curricula, and the firebrands who prefer pupils to stand on desks and address the teacher as “O Captain! My Captain!”
Both approaches have merit. We can all remember our three favourite teachers, but in fairness, the reason we can all count to three is probably because we had one desperately unpopular teacher who forced us to learn how to do it. Mine taught us maths with Cuisenaire rods. I don’t recall how they helped with maths, but I do remember a girl having to be taken to the school nurse because she had placed one beyond the reach of simple arithmetic. This was the kind of thing one resorted to so crushingly dull was that maths lesson.
Episodes like this are the reason I don’t want to be the homework guy. Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t wind up doing it. As with every parenting controversy, I will make a principled stand for about five minutes, and then my wife will school me. I’ll be lucky if I don’t get detention.