CHARLESTOWN, MASSACHUSETTS -- 09/09/2012 -- Elaine Donovan looks over her son Quin's, 13, agenda to make sure he finished all of his eighth grade homework. After looking Elaine found more work that Quin needed to do before completing his required reading. Brian Feulner for the Boston Globe
Quin Donovan says his mom, Elaine, nagging him about his homework “makes me less likely to do it.”
The Boston Globe

This was going to be the year that Elaine Donovan stopped nagging Quin to do his homework. “If he fails, he fails,” the Charlestown mother told herself before school started. “Let him face the music.”

Well, it was a nice idea, anyway. By Sunday morning — one homework assignment into the year — she’d already cracked. At 11:30 a.m., the sight of her eighth grader’s backpack sitting in the front room, untouched since Friday, became too much. “I plopped it down right in front of him,” she said. That was followed by hours of reminders, initially gentle, but growing less so, as the Monday due-date loomed.

“I can’t stop myself,” Donovan said. “I want him to succeed.”

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Never mind that Quin, 13, says the badgering doesn’t help — “It makes me less likely to do it,” were his exact words — or that the literature cautions against the technique. No matter how necessary it feels, family therapists and education experts say, nagging doesn’t address the underlying issue that’s preventing the student from doing the homework on her own, and instead can cause a variety of problems. Among them: It can breed resentment; make the student less interested in doing the work; turn assignments into the nagger’s responsibility, not the nagee’s; and actually diminish the value of the homework.

But with homework assignments coming in and a hyper-competitive world in which college-resume building starts in middle school, many parents say they fear if they don’t say something — or yell it — the work won’t get done.

Statistics on the incidence of nagging are hard to come by. But a number of factors have combined to ramp up the pressure families feel to get things done in a timely manner and that includes homework.

Let’s start with the amount of work kids get. The majority of students, regardless of grade level, spend less than one hour a day on assignments at home, according to research reported by The National Education Association . While this number has held steady for the past 50 years, in the past 20 years, homework has increased in the lower grades, according to the NEA.

Anyone who’s ever tried to cajole a reluctant fourth grader into doing a disliked math or writing assignment knows that homework that should take an hour can stretch into an entire unhappy afternoon or evening, a situation that working parents say they find particularly stressful. With about 71 percent of mothers with children under 18 in the workforce in 2011, compared with 47 percent of mothers in 1975, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, time is tighter than it used to be.

At the same time, the explosion of organized sports and activities, and the related car-pool responsibilities and practice time, means that many families’ schedules cannot tolerate even 10 minutes of procrastination.

But wait, there’s one more factor ratcheting up the pressure: Many parents feel responsible for making sure that their children’s homework is not just completed, but done to perfection.

The combination means that things can get emotional, quickly, even when the issue is something as seemingly benign as a few word problems for a third grader. “We all get stressed,” said Nikki McAuliffe, of Marblehead, describing what happens when she poses the seemingly straightforward question — “Have you done your homework?” — to her 9- and 12-year-old sons.

Many parents say they go straight to yelling, but McAullife uses the audible sigh technique. “They can read my tone,” she said, adding that she feels responsible for her children’s homework, yet unable to control whether it’s finished. “The teachers blame the parents if it’s not done,” she said.

In Hingham, Amy Nobile, co-author of “I was a Really Good Mom Before I had Kids,” and the mother of two, is also struggling with the issue.

“The kids are sick of us nagging, and we’re sick of us nagging, but we can’t get ourselves out of it,” she said. In what can be considered a self-intervention, she convened a family meeting before school started. “The number one item was homework and how we’re not going to have a blow-out every day in our home.”

Nobile explained to her children, ages 8 and 9, that a certain time would be designated for homework, and that she would leave the room while they worked, and return at the end of 45 minutes to answer questions.

But they were so used to her nagging, she said, that the plan unnerved them. “They were visibly stressed hearing that I wasn’t going to be breathing down their necks. They were like, ‘What am I supposed to do now?’ ”

So the only thing worse than nagging is not nagging?

No, not quite. P. Carol Jones, author of “Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?,” says that one down side of nagging is that it teaches kids “that mom and dad are going to be there to always remind them what they have to do, and when they leave home they are not going to have the skills they need to stay organized and manage their time.”

Many of nagging’s negative consequences kick in way before college, however.

Pestering a kid to do her homework can actually decrease a child’s motivation, warned Erica Curtis, an instructor in Loyola Marymount University’s department of marriage and family therapy. “There are very few, if any, situations where nagging yields the results you are looking for, whether it is doing homework, cleaning up, or doing chores.”

Parents often nag because they think “laziness” is the problem, she added. “And they think that therefore the answer is simply to nag the child. But both this explanation and the solution are too simplistic and miss the real significant, and specific factors that can turn the situation around.”

But like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, some parent-child pairs have been battling so long it’s hard to start fresh. But education specialists say it can be done, and they suggest parents try one or all of the following: Find out what’s preventing the child from doing his homework; create a homework schedule and give the child structure; make sure the child has the proper space and materials to do the work; enlist the teacher as a helper; hire a “homework helper” if need be; and use a timer to let the child know when the homework period is over, thereby taking “cop” duties away from you.

But all of that seems easier said than done. In Franklin, Paige Duncan says she becomes a nag “immediately,” which in turn makes her 13-year-old get defensive.

“I have an aunt who taught in the Boston Public Schools for 38 years,” said Duncan, a part-time town planner in Wrentham. “She comes to my house every Wednesday and the boys [Zach and a younger brother] sit down for her and do homework so nicely. Every other day of the week I’m involved, and it’s a nightmare.”

What’s Duncan’s aunt doing that she’s not? “She can take a deep breath,” she said, “but I almost relate too much to Zach. When he gets frustrated, I get frustrated.”