The Pleasures of Homework

What is it like to focus all your energy on getting the most pleasure possible out of any given moment? What if it didn't drive us nuts when our children tried?

It was Saturday afternoon. My son wanted help with his poetry homework. Having gotten an extremely attractive offer for an overnight adventure that would last through mid-afternoon on Sunday, he knew he had to get started if he wanted to go.

So far as I can tell, there is nothing that interests him about this poetry work. I can't say that I blame him. Reading "good literature" and answering textbook questions about it has never been my idea of fun. But I was delighted that he was showing so much initiative (liberating me from the role of nag) and I was very willing to help.

The delight, however, was short-lived. He simply would not take the job seriously. After reading the poem aloud, I said, "Okay, the first question they ask is 'Why might the poet have chosen this topic?'" He considers with pleasure. "I know! He was being paid!" When I don't sound enthusiastic about that being the thing to write down, he starts guessing wildly--with even greater pleasure. "His brain was missing? Someone was threatening him with a gun? He was dead? They all were dead? Hey, I have a great idea, Mom! For every answer, I'll write, 'He did it because he was being paid.'" Now this is a pretty original, funny response. But it doesn't get him closer to completion, and it certainly doesn't make me feel like much help.

Luckily we're both pretty relaxed and in good communication with each other, and the time situation is not yet desperate--Sunday bedtime is still a long ways off--so there's a little slack. The strategy I choose is to beat on him (lightly, affectionately) for being so "wrong" while continuing to try to move the process along. We make some progress, though he continues to up the ante, make more jokes, take it less seriously.

He's having a great time, hanging out with his mom, making some progress on his homework, having fun. I, on the other hand, feel incredibly torn. I'm unwilling to bring down the heavy hand of authority, make it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is not fun, not creative, not interesting, but a job that has to e done and done right. After all, I spent my whole school career with exactly that attitude and I wouldn't wish it on anybody else. But I'm going crazy with his tone of total irreverence, total unconcern with getting it done. I can't play the heavy with any enthusiasm, but I can't give up totally on the parental role and just join the fun.

Finally I can no longer play the middle road--rolling with the jokes and relaxedly moving the process along. I up the ante myself. Rather than just good-humoredly beating on him, I grab him by the shirt front and start yelling: "I can't stand this any more. You're not doing it the right way. This is work. You're supposed to give the right answers and not joke around. I know what I'm talking about. I did this for thirteen years. So what if it's no fun--there's a right way to do it, and this is not it. You're driving me crazy!"

He smiles at me and says warmly and simply, "I know."

This totally unexpected response leaves me with a pretty big question: Who is doing the helping here? And who is doing the learning? True, I help him put down the "right" answers to poetry comprehension questions and keep him company in the homework process. But he requires me to examine what is really important, and welcomes my outbursts as I struggle. I hope he comes out ahead. I certainly do.