Worthwhile exercise or love's labour's lost?
Parents often see homework as a stressor, functioning as a test both of their effectiveness as parents and of their love for their children.
Meanwhile, children become dependent on their parents' help, without which they struggle to get any work done.
Kirsten Hutchison, a lecturer in language and literary education at Deakin University in the Australian state of Victoria, spent a year studying the interactions between one working-class and two middle-class mothers and their children over homework. The children were aged between 10 and 12 years old, and each received between half an hour and 45 minutes of homework every evening.
In the resulting paper, "A Labour of Love: mothers, emotional capital and homework", Hutchison writes that there was often a conflict between how much help the mothers felt they should give their children, and the help that the children themselves demanded.
For example, Kate, the middle-class mother of 10-year-old Genevieve, had been advised by her daughter's teacher not to provide intensive homework help. But it was not as simple as that, Kate found. "Sometimes (Genevieve will) ask me, and she'll get shitty because I'll say, 'I'm not supposed to help you,'" she says.
Similarly, 11-year-old Ben insisted that his mother Jody, a psychologist and former primary-school teacher, keep him company while he did his homework. "She understood that her presence was essential in making the individual chore of homework more social and potentially less tedious," Hutchison says.
According to Jody, when she told Ben that he was doing his work easily and did not really need her to sit with him, Ben responded by engaging her in a maths problem. Jody then talked Ben through the mathematical methods required.
"He actually really likes an audience," Jody says. "He likes me to sit and watch him do it. And if I offer an opinion, he's not happy, but he likes me to watch. He'll say, 'Keep me company. Pull up a chair.' He likes me to be there."
For other parents, the need to supervise their children's homework - or merely to ensure that the homework is being done - adds extra stress to their already busy lives.
"I think homework gets misunderstood," says Dianne, the working-class mother of 10-year-old Aaron. "You know, the teachers get pressure to give it, the kids have got the pressure to do it, but the mums and dads have got the pressure to get it happening.
"How are we supposed to do homework, have dinner and go to drama class? That's what mucks me up. I'm supposed to be in 28 places at once."
Dianne's involvement in Aaron's homework typically punctuated a series of domestic chores, including laundry, food preparation and phone calls to arrange extracurricular activities for her teenage daughter.
This was also Kate's experience. Genevieve's anxious reliance on her to provide answers led her to say: "At this point, they have so many pressures and they don't need it ... It's just one more pressure they don't need."
"Kate could be speaking about herself," Hutchison writes.
Aaron, like Genevieve, became dependent on his mother, and used her presence to reassure himself about his own efforts and to alleviate his boredom. For example, he waited for Dianne to look up words in the dictionary that he would have been capable of finding for himself. "He controls his mother's movements, and co-opts her as his assistant," says Hutchison.
But Dianne, a single parent, was keen that her children should not follow in her footsteps and leave school at 14. "As a child, I never did my homework," she says. "And ... it's something that you carry for the rest of your life. Because you think, if I had disciplined myself, and my mother had disciplined me to just do that little bit ... it follows through, doesn't it?"
Hutchison says that schools often emphasise the role that homework can play in nurturing self-discipline and organisational skills.
"However, rather than developing primary-school students' independent learning skills, homework ... creates an additional arena of domestic, pedagogical and emotional labour," she says. "The educational benefits of (parents) investing emotional capital in their children may be mitigated by the depletion of ... emotional resources as they perform this form of love's labour."
Hutchison, K. "A Labour of Love: mothers, emotional capital and homework" (2012). Gender in Education, 24 (2), 195-212.
Dr Kirsten Hutchison:
Kate, mother of 10-year-old Genevieve, says: "Sometimes she'll ask me, and she'll get shitty, because I'll say, 'I'm not supposed to help you. I've been told not to help you' ... She'll often ... have temper tantrums, so I tell her she's not allowed to abuse me that way. It doesn't make any difference."
Jody, mother of 11-year-old Ben, says: "Ben will say, 'I don't know what to do with all this', and so I will sit down and say, 'Tell me the facts', and I'll type them. And then Ben throws an almighty tantrum about it, because he couldn't get it."
Dianne, mother of 10-year-old Aaron, says: "If I had the dinner cooked in the morning, perhaps all the washing done, and ... I rushed him in and said, 'Come on, Aaron, sit down and let's do your homework, and I'll sit next to you' ... You see, that's where I think homework gets misunderstood ... The teachers get pressure to give it, the kids have got the pressure to do it, but the mums and dads have got the pressure to get it happening."