The tipping point - FamilyEducation

The tipping point

September 09,2010
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

After dinner on Tuesday night, T. and I slipped out to walk the dog. This is our special time together, and we soaked up the quiet early evening, searched for figs on a neighbor's tree, and watched a red-winged hawk circle in the sky, high about the road. When we approached home again, though, I could hear raised voices from the driveway, and when I walked into the house I saw an over-turned wooden tray table in the hallway, and papers scattered all over the family room floor. The tension in the house was so palpable--overwhelmingly thick, like a hot and humid night. L. was nowhere to be found and Scott, I could tell from one look, was distraught-looking and well past breaking point. "What happened?" I asked, even though I knew the answer. Homework had happened--again. If we back up the evening's events--rewind the tape, I can easily see where it all went wrong. After dinner, L. made a beeline for the office, to watch some more of his new favorite show. We stopped him immediately, and reminded him of the no-computer-after-dinner rule. We've found that trying to transition L. from computer to homework time is nearly impossible, so the computer is off-limits after dinner. He waved us away and, some moments later, we could hear laughter coming from the office. "He's on the computer," I remarked to Scott. We debated--via looks thrown back and forth to each other--whether to get him off or not but, truth be told, T. was in the middle of telling us a story about her day, I wanted to finish my dinner, and we pushed away having to deal with the inevitable and unpleasant scene that would ensue as we tried to pry him off his beloved computer. We let him be, figuring we'd take care of the problem when we were all finished with the meal. After dinner, T. and I headed out for our short walk. Somehow, in the space of the ten minutes we were gone, the world inside the house exploded: L. threw the table, tossed his math papers all over the floor, and pushed Scott to the breaking point--something difficult to do. By the time the dust had cleared, the evening was a wash; no homework got done, and we were left with damaged feelings and sore heads and hearts. Our house, lately, is just not a fun place to be, and that's an understatement; L. isn't happy, and none of us are happy. We spend hours wrangling over math homework and rules and consequences, and no day has ended yet without raised voices, and tension, thrown objects, and meltdowns. Scott and I patiently and, increasingly, not-so-patiently, dodge it all, but the stress is beginning to wear on us. I know we're not alone in the homework battles--maybe ours are more extreme, but not unique. I wonder, is it worth all this? At what point does a family's quality of life become so poor as a result of these daily knock-down drag-outs that the homework simply isn't worth it anymore? We spend so much time on math that we don't have the time or energy to help L. with the other subjects--writing, for instance, which is near and dear to my heart. This year L.'s not getting the adequate individual attention he needs in his classes and too much is spilling over into home life. His teachers this year seem to have adopted a "sink or swim" approach with L. and he is, most definitely, sinking. While we are never ones to shirk our own important role in L.'s education, I wonder how it can be that we end up doing so much, at the end of the day, to make up for what's not getting done at school. Tuesday night was a catalyst moment for us--a wake-up call for us as a family. It's clear some things need to change: exactly what, and how much, we have yet to decide. Academic success, as it is measured by today's standards, surely shouldn't cost this much.