Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I twitch awake in a cold sweat, having been scared out of my slumber by a nightmare. You’d assume it was about something terrifying, like being buried alive, falling out of plane, or missing the tax deadline for self assessment, but no, it is always the same thing – unfinished homework.
It’s hard to know what it is about homework that leaves such deep scars on us. Who hasn’t woken in the night after a dream in which they forget to submit an essay titled Emily Dickinson: U ok hun? We almost never dream about dying, or our house burning down, but unfinished homework is always there, the manifestation of all our fears of failure. Of course, then you leave school, and all is well for a few years; your brain gets to chill out and engage in some more normal anxieties, like worrying that you might never own a home. But then you have kids, and the nightmare of homework comes back to haunt you once more.
Doing your kids’ homework with them is almost worse than when you had to do it yourself. You become that irritated parent who can’t understand how this little being who shares so much of your genetic material is unable to grasp possessive apostrophes. In our house we try to split the subjects according to who was less worse than the other. She claims to be good at maths – this is clearly demonstrated by her economic activity, whereby she buys clothes, then subtracts the bags from my line of sight by hiding them under the back seats in the people carrier until a week or so has passed and they can be unveiled with the caveat, ‘but I got them ages ago’. So she tackles the maths, languages and anything else I can throw under those banners, as I’m really only good at one subject.
Regular readers of this column will be shocked to learn that English is my strong point, so I am tasked with doing that part of the homework. I quite enjoy it, but sadly it seems I enjoy it too much, to the point that my daughter’s English teacher said to tell me well done on that poem, but next time maybe the child could do it herself? The next week I responded with a devastating verse in haiku form. That’ll teach her.
Homework has changed. Back when I was a kid it was all rote learning – just repeat every line until it was scorched into your cerebral cortex. Now, it’s all a bit more esoteric, where a homework journal isn’t just where you try to scribble down your tasks; now, the junior infants are expected to keep an actual journal of what they do of an evening.
This is a brilliant step forward in both education and early childhood development, as it means you get to teach your child how to lie. Spent four hours watching ADHD Americans scream at each other on YouTube? Let’s just write down that you read a book, visited a museum and enjoyed a dinner of broccoli washed down with delicious water. It takes a while to coach a five year old into telling these lies, but anything to avoid the humdrum truth – that just running a house is a full time job, and it’s impossible to spend quality time with your children when homework with each of them takes between 30 minutes and four hours out of your evening.
An old friend who is a teacher rails against after-school study, where you pay a few quid for your child to stay on and do their homework with their peers in a supervised classroom setting. It’s monetising childhood, and monetising children, he says. I usually nod and say gosh that is terrible, whilst internally screaming shut up and take my money. Just like when I was in school, I would do almost anything to avoid homework, as it is a pox. But what makes it hardest is knowing that so much of what my kids learn will be completely forgotten by the time they are 25, and will have to relearn it all when their kids go to school, in an endless cycle of intellectual lather, rinse and repeat. But at least they will always remember their dad’s short fuse when it came to the difference between its and it’s.