If I was running Guantanamo Bay* and, believe me, some mornings it definitely feels like I do, I think my main torture strategy would be making inmates help a six year old do their homework. I get lockjaw from the gritted teeth and whiplash from constantly throwing my eyes to heaven. Nothing is more likely to trigger spit-flecked invective in me than a child who is meant to be doing their maths randomly bursting into Uptown Funk with accompanying dance moves.
We are very lucky that the homework set in my son's school is done sensibly - we are given a block of activities at the start of each half term to be completed within the six weeks. Some of these will be things you could conceivably do in the back of a car on the way to something far more interesting. According to some parents, it is even possible to get more than one out of the way at a time. There is not enough cocaine in the world to give me enough confidence to attempt two pieces of homework in one week but I tip my hat to those that can. There is one problem with this system though - there will always be at least one bit of homework that sends me spiralling right back to school myself, where I am the child who DOES NOT WANT TO DO IT. Sometimes it might be, say, geography, where I genuinely don't know the answers. Other times it may be identifying the words with split digraphs in a paragraph. Ugh, split digraphs. Honestly - what the hell is wrong with calling it a 'Magic E'? I was utterly baffled when I first encountered this phrase. Let me reiterate, my kid is six and I already can't do some of his homework without the help of the internet. Honestly, I have no idea how anyone helped their kid to do their homework before the advent of Google. But sometimes the homework is (shudder with me) a crafts project...
It's the fact that this chore is so clearly more about testing the parents than educating the child that makes it so dispiriting. Do you make the grade? Do you pass the good parenting test? Can you create a functioning solar panel from household objects? Can you depict the socio-economic impact of the black death using play-doh? Can you assemble a robot capable of independent movement from egg boxes and whimsy? There are of course short cuts. Pinterest is your friend people. I am very happy to outsource all my craft projects to an overly competitive mother of 8 in Tennessee. Let her have the ideas, I will follow her instructions slavishly until my farmyard scene made from root vegetables looks like I actually give a shit.
But that's what it's all about really isn't it. How much of a shit do you give? Not your kid. You. If my son wanted to spend the better part of his Saturday constructing a race car from a shoe box I'd probably be down with that. But he doesn't. He wants to watch the iPad until his eyes bleed. Just persuading him that fresh air isn't toxic and that a nice walk might be fun is a superhuman effort; to try and get him to focus on a task he does not value or care about is simply miserable. It would be possible to just phone it in, to do most of the task myself or to let him hand in something a bit rubbish, but I can't. I do give a shit. Therefore, in order to get these tasks completed, I have used bribery, praise, threats, I have stalked out of the room, I have loomed over him, I have even, once, held his pen with him. One memorable Sunday my husband and I, for a good (bad) three hours, took turns to stand in the well of misery that was once our kitchen occasionally barking instructions and correct spellings at the angriest child in the world. Wine was drunk, we even offered some to the child - but he's better than us and refused it.
But I have found an answer. Colouring in. I know, I know, it sounds ridiculously twee but I promise you it has completely changed the tenor of homework time in our house. I am definitely wiping less rage-infused spittle from the walls. As I'm sitting next to him doing my own thing, I can now gently remind him of what he should be doing without it becoming a battle of wills. I'm right there so I can help out with a minor problem before it becomes a crisis, rather than stomping in, harassed and distracted, from another room to bark an answer at an already stressed out child. Instead of pouncing on my son every time he gets distracted, I'm just sitting there, calm and focussed, actually providing some sort of role model for him. I am enjoying what I'm doing and this seems to be rubbing off on him. Give it a try, you might hate it but it might work for you too. And just to prove that it's not about the quality of the work, just the doing of it, here's one I made earlier.
This masterpiece is from a range of adults' colouring books published by Michael O'Meara Books. Many thanks to my friend Gabriella Nemeth who works there for directing me to this lovely activity. I also recommend Moose Alain's books for a slightly different style - his downloadable colour-me-in advent calendars are an integral part of our Christmas.
I'd better get a fucking housepoint for this essay.
* I know this feels like a dated reference but according to Wikipedia "as of January 2016, 93 detainees remain at Guantanamo" so it's still topical even if we're not talking about it anymore.