When Boys Refuse to Do “Stupid” Homework

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boy doing homework
Photo by Graham Knott via Flickr

What do you do with a son who refuses to do this homework? Especially a son who refuses out of principle — a son who most certainly could do the homework, but has decided it’s not worth his time and energy?

This is not a rhetorical question. This is a question I have faced regularly. And I’ll be honest: my responses have been inconsistent. In some cases, I’ve stood back and simply let my son suffer the natural consequences of not doing his work; if his grade is low because he didn’t do his assignments, that’s his problem, not mine. In some cases, I’ve actively supported my son. I mean, when an assignment takes up a significant amount of your time but counts for a minuscule part of your grade, it’s actually pretty smart to skip the busy work and concentrate your efforts on the projects and tests that matter, at least from a time management perspective.

Other times…Yeah, I agreed with my son that the assignment was stupid busywork. I didn’t worry too much about whether or not he got it done because I thought the assignment was pretty stupid too.

This is not the best approach, and here’s why. I’ll let psychologist (and boy mom) Janet Sasson Edgette explain:

Let’s take for instance a precocious seventeen year old who is always being told how smart he is. He gets it into his head that, since he’s so smart, he knows better than his teacher which of her assignments are worth the effort, and which are not. He does only the ones that he thinks merit his time.

Missed assignments start accumulating, and the boy’s grade starts slipping. His parents are furious. “You’re just giving away points!” they yell. They’re right, but they’re also missing something much bigger than the sacrificed grade. They’re missing the fact that their son feels entitled to make decisions about responsibilities that are not his to make. And taking this sense of entitlement into his future will cost this boy a whole lot more than a sterling GPA.

Oooof. No wonder my young adult sons butt heads with authority.

Edgette’s words, which she originally published in a blog post entitled “Focus on Achievement Can Cause Parents to Disregard Character Flaws,” hit me hard. Intuitively, I recognize their truth. Grades, after all, aren’t the important end point. What matters most is how we treat other people. Unwittingly, I may have reinforced my sons’ belief that it’s OK to disregard authority and dismiss others if you know more than they do. Or think you do.

But what to do instead? What should parents do when confronted with a tween or teen boy who refuses to do “stupid” homework? I asked Edgette:

I’d suggest the parent be straightforward and candid with their son, and say something along the lines of,

“We notice you’re skipping assignments and letting your grade fall, but what concerns us more is that it seems you feel as if you are in a position to pick and choose with assignments are important enough for you to do and which aren’t…almost as if your opinion about that should matter as much as your teacher’s.

We don’t understand why you wouldn’t just do whatever your teacher is asking you to do, without feeling as if you have to pass judgement on it, or as if you are too good or too smart to have to do it. Because that’s not smart; that’s disrespectful, and it’s not an attractive quality, and I’m worried there are other areas in your life where you adjust the rules you don’t think should apply to you…Tell us, what do you think?”

Notice: she doesn’t suggest jumping all over your son for his grades or lack of achievement. Edgette instead suggests keeping the focus squarely on character development. Her script is a way to remind your son of what’s most important, which is how we treat and interact with other people. It’s a way to let your son know that you see him, and it gives him the opportunity to explain himself. Asking him, “What do you think?” inspires reflection.

It’s entirely possible that your son will push back. It’s entirely possible that he’ll say the teacher is disrespectful. People — especially tween and teenage boys — tend to get defensive when someone suggests they’re behaving in less-than-wonderful ways.

That’s OK, though. You might not get a thoughtful answer in the moment, but your comment and question will inspire reflection in your son. Your words will bounce around in his brain, and the next time he’s faced with a “stupid” assignment, your words may come to mind.

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