The Homework Ate My Family

KIDS ARE DAZED PARENTS ARE STRESSED Why piling it on is hurting students

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It's hard to blame parents like Alexis Rasley of Oak Park, Ill., if they occasionally get too involved. Last fall a homework assignment for fifth-graders at the public Horace Mann School was to build a mini-space station that accounted for food, water, waste treatment, radiation shielding and zero gravity. Rasley's son Taylor, 10, spent countless maddening hours toiling at a basement countertop surrounded by cut-open soda bottles. "He just kept sitting there saying, 'I don't know what to do,'" Rasley says. "When the frustration level gets that high, you say, 'O.K., I'm going to help,' because the situation has become so hurtful."

Being an attentive, empathetic parent is one thing; acting as a surrogate student is another. But when pressures mount, the line can get blurred. When Susan Solomon of San Francisco saw her son bogged down last year with a language-arts paper that would help his application to an elite high school, she took matters into her own hands: she did his math homework. He later copied his mother's calculations in his own handwriting. "He knew how to do it," Solomon shrugs. "It was just busywork." In the affluent Boston suburb of Sherborn, Mass., parents at the public Pine Hill School tend to talk about homework in the first-person plural; and they sometimes become more than equal partners in carrying out such third-grade projects as writing up the ownership history of their house, complete with a sketch of the floor plan. Homework has been known to arrive at school two hours after the child does.

"So much of this is about parents wanting their kids to look good," admits psychologist Kim Gatof, mother of third-grader Jake. For an "invention convention," members of Jake's class are building contraptions of their devising. Jake wants to build a better mousetrap. "I can say, 'Just build it yourself,'" says Kim. "Or we can help with it, and it can be on the same level as the others." Jake may have a hard time topping Tucker Carter, another third-grader, who has already made his presentation. Tucker whipped up a fully functioning battery-operated alarm clock that uses a windshield pump to squirt cold water at the sleeper. The kids whooped at this bit of ingenuity, but even they were suspicious. Either Tucker is a prodigiously gifted engineer, or his dad built the clock for him. Sighed David Nihill, the school's principal: "It looks like Alexander Graham Bell made it himself."

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