Lessons in parental guidance

The Harvard Medical School professor specializes in child psychiatry. He also gives homework tips.

By June Wulff
Globe Staff / September 25, 2010

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Q. Are there conditions conducive to forming good homework habits?

A. It’s a very individualized thing. Some parents mistakenly think that what works for them works for the kids. Because of the influx of multiple forms of media, it’s harder for kids to budget time. I remember rushing to get homework done to watch Monday Night Football. There was no TiVo. We’re probably fighting an uphill battle if we try to make the multiple forms of media go away. It’s more about finding a way to help them prioritize what needs to be done and when.

Q. How can parents help, and should they use rewards and punishments?

A. Stay on top of it. If there have been problems in the past, check in with the school and ask to know if things aren’t looking good. I don’t have problems with rewards, but punishments don’t always work as well. We give ourselves bribes all the time. When you’ve worked hard, you deserve something special, and there’s nothing wrong with that as a life lesson.

Q. What doesn’t work?

A. A depressed kid can’t do his work, and there may be learning disabilities. So, if things aren’t working, you have to look for problems. If a kid is so involved in extracurricular activities that start to take precedence, that’s problematic

Q. What does it mean when a kid says homework is boring?

A. Ask: “What do you mean?’’ When I was a kid, boring meant a lot of things: You don’t like what you’re doing; you’d rather do something else; you don’t understand. They could be using “boring’’ in place of another word that’s harder to say. Try to tease out what they mean.

Q. Is there too much homework?

A. Potentially, it’s on a person-on-person basis. There’s data on both sides. If four hours is a lot for some kids, look at their schedule and maybe drop classes, get a tutor, and see if there is some learning disorder.

Q. What would you tell parents of a first-grader?

A. The hard thing is helping a parent, me included, understand that kids have certain responsibilities asked of them that come from outside the family. Acknowledging that is helpful. It’s a weird moment [when you realize] that other people are having an influence on them.

Q. What should parents report to the teacher?

A. Any time you have a question, you’ll always feel better when you call than when you don’t.

Q. You’re a sci-fi and horror movies fan and have a book coming out next year called “The Zombie Autopsies.’’ How would a zombie approach homework?

A. They would be really bad at it, but it depends on the type of zombie. I need to issue this caveat: These things don’t exist!

Interview was edited and condensed.

Dr. Steven C. Schlozman is the author of the Human Nature blog on

June Wulff can be reached at

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