How to help 11-year-old stop rushing, aim for excellence?

Ann from Massachusetts, asks:

My 11-year-old son, whom I adore, continues to rush through his homework, class work, and tests. We have been after him since third grade to slow down and double check his work because he makes careless errors. Both my husband and I have tried speaking with him calmly, as well as getting angry with him. Nothing works. How can we inspire our son to slow down and do the best job?

One of the most common complaints that parents have about their sons is that they rush through their homework and are careless about their school work I get a lot of questions about this tendency. Since this problem is seen so frequently in boys, you need to know that your son is perfectly normal. However, in order to know how to help a boy persevere in an unpleasant task, we have to try to understand it from a boy point of view.

While there are boys who are conscientious about homework right from the start, many, many boys regard homework as something illegitimate, burdensome and pointless. They feel that they have sat in school all day listening to adults talk; they have done their best to sit still and follow school rules. It has been hard for them because the average boy tends to be more physically restless and impulsive than girls. So, the idea that they have to come home and sit down to do work again is simply unacceptable, even unbearable to them. Boys talk among themselves and support each other in their resistance to homework. They will say, "Homework is stupid!" and, "I hate homework!"

When your son comes home to a house filled with fun things to do, like television or video games or playing with friends in the neighborhood, his approach to homework is almost certainly to get it over with as soon as possible so that he can turn to something more fun. He believes he is doing heroics just to do his homework in the first place. You are asking him to CARE ABOUT IT, and that’s something he’s unwilling to do. You may never be able to persuade him that homework is important and necessary, but you can create a structure in the household that will help him to do get it done right. You do that by paying more attention to him when he is doing his homework.

I suggest that you create a “study hall” atmosphere in the house for about forty-five minutes to an hour each night. That means no television (not for mom, not for dad), no video games, no music. After dinner, for example, you need to clear the table and sit down with him and his younger brother or sister, if he has siblings. Tell them that this is homework time and you are there to be of help, if they need you. Ask some organizing questions, “What’s been assigned?” or “How long do you think this will take?” Just be a steady, calming presence. You should have something for you to read or otherwise occupy you-perhaps a newspaper, or paying the bills. Do not, however, talk on the phone or clean the kitchen. You should be doing the same thing he is doing: reading or writing Occasionally, just look up and watch his work rate and ask, “Do you have any questions?” or “How is it going?” or “Try to do your best work.”

If you see him speeding through an assignment, you might ask, “May I see that?” or “Are you doing your best work?” That is, catch him in the act of rushing and gently slow him down in the moment. That will be far more effective than waiting until he has finished his work and trying to get him to go back. He’ll resent that (“But it’s completely done, Mom!”)

Don’t pin him down for hours and hours. Forty-five minutes should be plenty, and he should know from the start that it is going to last for a finite period of time. If he expresses anger or frustration, you can say, “Only twenty-seven minutes to go; you can do it.” Some parents use a kitchen timer to give children both a sense of limits and a sense of hope.

I would be up front with your son by telling him that you are trying to teach him good work habits that will help him not only with homework, but with his future work as a man. “Homework,” you can say to him, “Is sometimes dumb, and I understand that, but good work habits are important for life. You will need them when you are a man.” It might help for you or his father to say that the one thing that employers require is an employee who knows how to do a good job.” That is, make the stakes about his future, his life, his work as a man, not about homework, because if the truth be told. a lot of homework is really dumb (Whoops! That’s the boy in me coming out!)

If you have never worked this way with him before, it may be tough to change the evening routine, but you should try. If he fights you, you can make his allowance depend on it, or make his ability to play video games conditional on working seriously during the “study hall.” What I don’t want you to do, however, is become his teacher. Think of yourself as his “homework aide” but don’t get totally detail-oriented, don’t go over everything, don’t check it until it is perfect. It is his homework, not yours. Teach work habits; don’t take responsibility for teaching the subject itself. Only give him help with the content when he asks.

Over time, he may find that he appreciates the structure you have put into place. He may find he likes being better prepared in class, or he likes getting better grades.