Fiona McCade: Arithmetic of stress-free homework

The philosopher Aristotle had Alexander the Great as a pupil. Picture: GettyThe philosopher Aristotle had Alexander the Great as a pupil. Picture: Getty
The philosopher Aristotle had Alexander the Great as a pupil. Picture: Getty
Alexander the Great benefited from the teaching of Aristotle, but I wonder if his royal parents helped him with his homework, writes Fiona McCade

Sometimes, I wonder what it was like in the evenings at Alexander the Great’s house. Young Alexander went to school during the day, the sole pupil of Aristotle, arguably the greatest of the Greek philosophers. Then, when lessons were over, Aristotle handed him his homework and off he went, back to the palace, where his mum and dad, King Philip and Queen Olympias of Macedon, the greatest power couple in Greece (arguable only if you wanted to be murdered), stood over him, probably saying stuff like: “This has taken you over an hour, Alex darling, and Aristotle said you shouldn’t spend more than 20 minutes on it. Is there a problem?” or: “No, no, NO! You’ve forgotten to carry the one.” “But Dad, Aristotle says that’s not the way we do sums nowadays,” “I don’t care what Aristotle says, we carried the one in my day and you’ll carry the one, my lad. Now, CARRY the ONE!”

And so on, every school night, until Alexander had to conquer most of the known world, just to make himself feel better.

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I understand how Philip of Macedon must have felt. I know my child has a brain, and I see it as my parental duty to make him use it, whether he wants to or not. The trouble is, my eight-year-old son apparently has no interest in conquest, and I don’t really understand any kind of maths, new or old. I dread having to help with homework, and yet I feel that I ought to, because if I don’t, he’ll never even know there’s a world to conquer, never mind get a “Great” after his name.

To help, or not to help? That is the question, and it’s one I’ve been struggling with for the past two weeks ever since I read that report about how much havoc can be created in the family unit by children doing – or not doing – their homework. Quite apart from being the catalyst for rows and general unpleasantness in the household, the recent survey of 2,000 families found that over 60 per cent of parents help their children with their homework, with a scary one-in-six doing all of it. Reading those statistics made me realise how close I have come to falling into that trap, but it’s entirely my own fault.

I have not raised a child fit to invade India. I have raised a child who wants nothing more than to watch YooHoo and Friends in peace, untroubled by his crazy, unreasonable mother, whose fanatical work ethic constantly interrupts his post-school down-time.

I understand this mindset, but I can’t condone it, so after I’ve dragged him – struggling like a rabid wolverine – to his books, I stand over him while he chews on his pen and says: “I can’t do it”. Of course, what he actually means is: “I could do it if I really wanted to, but if I play dumb long enough, you, mummy dearest, will lose patience, step in and I can sit back while you desperately try to work out how they do multiplication these days”.

Desperate is the word for me. I want my child to do as well as he can, but I want him to do it on his own. Although some aspects of the report made me feel better – for instance, I’m not one of the muggins who do absolutely everything for their lazy little wasters – finding out that I’m one of the 38 per cent who look up from the problem in hand to find that their child has wandered off, probably to watch YooHoo and Friends, chilled me to the bone. So, this week, I decided to act.

My son’s teacher may not be Aristotle, but she’s excellent at her job, and I knew I could run my bright ideas past her. “How about,” I suggested, blithely, “some humiliation? One night, when he refuses to do his homework, I’ll say ‘OK! Fine! Don’t do it!’ And then the next day at school, you haul him over the coals? How about that? How about we scare him together?”

She looked at me as though I’d suggested we put him in a wicker cage in the middle of the playground and set fire to it. Then, very sweetly and calmly, she pointed out that potentially destroying a child’s confidence wasn’t quite her idea of educational best practice. She would prefer we help him swim, rather than deliberately watch him sink simply to teach him a lesson.

Her recommended strategy is for me to continue supporting him with his homework, and she’ll target praise where it is due, in the hope of building his self-esteem. I must admit, I was quietly disappointed, as this means I’ll have to persevere with the nasty arithmetic, and can’t just leave him to it, as I’d dearly love to do.

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She believes that once he tastes success in the classroom, he will want more, and that will fuel a desire to totally destroy the Persians – sorry, I mean, to try harder on his own, to keep the rewards coming.

I hope so. It is my sincerest wish that, one day, he’ll come to prefer education over crappy cartoons, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

However, the teacher did have one suggestion that might work: superiority. My son may not be showing any ambition to lead nations, but he will surely enjoy lording it over his mother. Apparently, all I have to do is play dumb, and my little princeling will then feel motivated to help me understand the difficult homework. We’ll turn the tables; he will take the role of tutor and explain things, while I will become the attentive pupil.

Naturally, this will be difficult for me, as it will undermine my godlike parental authority, and I will no longer be the fount of all knowledge, but hey, we all make sacrifices for our children. If I have to “pretend” to be utterly confused by all forms of mathematics, that sounds great to me.