The Perils of Procrastination

By Mark Alpert

I have a son in ninth grade and a daughter in seventh, and the bane of their existence is homework. Their teachers assign way too much of it, four or five hours every night. And because the kids don’t come home from track practice till five or six in the evening, very often they’re still working at midnight, solving algebra problems or reading about the Roman Empire. They get far more homework than I ever got during my school days. Back in the halcyon Seventies I used to tear through my assignments in an hour or so and spend the rest of the evening reading my X-Men comics, listening to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and watching Mary Hartman, Mary Hartmanon TV.

I blame globalization. The world economy has grown more competitive since the days of disco, and the striving meritocrats of America are desperate to save a slice of the shrinking money-pie for their children. In response, the schools in the wealthier districts have accelerated their curricula, trying to prepare their students to compete with the fiercely disciplined kids in East Asia. If the top achievers in Beijing and Seoul are working their butts off, then our kids should be doing the same, right?

Wrong. I’d rather see America forfeit this global rat race than continue to make our children miserable. Seriously, it’s not worth it.

The worst part is seeing the pernicious psychological effects that excessive homework has on my kids. The nightly burden is so great, it makes them depressed. They sense the unfairness of it, the futility. And they add to their misery by putting it off as long as they can. There’s too much homework to finish it quickly, so instead they delay starting it. It’s like a huge black mountain darkening all the hours ahead, and the last thing they want to do is begin the long, hard climb. So they go on Facebook or YouTube, or text their friends, or watch another Simpsons episode on TV. But all the while, the homework is still waiting for them, a looming threat.

I can imagine their feelings because I’ve felt them myself. Writing novels is more fun than doing homework — otherwise, why write them? — but sometimes I get confused about the direction of a work-in-progress and I start to wonder if the whole thing is a lost cause. At those moments I see the black mountain looming in front of me, and the last thing I want to do is climb it. So instead of writing the next sentence of the manuscript, I check my e-mail or the New York Times website. Or I go into the living room where the kids are watching the Simpsons episode and watch it with them. (It’s such a consistently entertaining show.) We procrastinate together, as a family.

I’m in that predicament right now, unfortunately. But I know that sooner or later I’ll sling my backpack over my shoulder and rediscover the path that goes up the mountain. With any luck, it’ll happen sometime this week. In the meantime, I’ll keep busy by nagging the kids about their homework.

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11 thoughts on “The Perils of Procrastination

  1. Wow, I find it hard to believe that your children are doing that much homework every night. If they are, I would advise you to stop nagging them and get down to the school and start nagging the headteacher about setting inappropriate amounts of homework. Children need play time and quality sleep – going to bed at midnight is not going to provide enough sleep for a growing child and tiredness will only inhibit their performance the next day. As a writer you should be able to research the effects of sleep deprivation and depression in children and present a sound argument for change to your children’s school. Get some other parents to support you – stop procrastinating about it and do something!

    Sorry to be so blunt. But you need to take some action.

    • Mark, I absolutely agree with Jane! The school needs to be made aware of this. As a former teacher, I would have appreciated this kind of feedback, as each individual teacher doesn’t know what the other teachers are assigning or how much, and big assignments could come due at the same time, without the teachers realizing it.

      Also, your sons are getting a bit old now for this, but I used to tell my sons (now in their 20s) that they couldn’t watch TV or play video games, etc. until after their homework is done… Hard to enforce that with a kid in ninth grade, though.

      I totally agree with your take on this. Kids need time to relax and veg out in the evening after working hard all day at school!

  2. I agree, Mark. Whatever happened to doing work during school hours, with the teacher there to answer questions? You do have a say, and I’d be saying a lot to the school administration.

    Meanwhile, I suppose you could help them with it, make it go faster and maybe learn something. Wouldn’t want to do that every night, though.

    Don’t give up the soccer/football/baseball/hockey practices, whatever you do. Too important. And we sure in hell can’t add any more hours to a day.

    Procrastinating as a family is a wonderful way to procrastinate. I highly recommend it. But, somehow we all have to delegate time to ‘homework’, usually taking up time on our weekends. I can sympathize with the looming black cloud and it’s difficult as an adult to tackle it, I can only imagine how overwhelming it must be as a teenager.

    Where would a writer be without the time to stare into space? Hard to be creative with a stop watch ticking.

    The only answer seems to be to talk to the teachers/principals.

  3. “Sometimes I get confused about the direction of a work-in-progress and I start to wonder if the whole thing is a lost cause.”

    Boy, can I relate to this one this week, Mark. I am in the same place as you right now with my WIP. I realized — subsconsciously I think — that my plot was fatally flawed. So, in a funk, I find lots of other things to occupy my time and mind. Then yesterday, I said ENOUGH. Did some hardcore brainstorming and talked to my sister and we solved the flaw. Now I just have to go back and fix things before I can move forward again. If this were easy, anyone could do it, right? 🙂

  4. This is one reason I homeschooled. By noon or so, my kids were done and had time to write novels (which they all did for fun), research something they were interested in, hang out, or whatever. And they still got into college and did well–my youngest is in law school on a full-tuition scholarship. You can’t really become until you have free time.

  5. American schools can be fickle. When my daughter was in high school they stopped giving ANY homework, stating that if a child didn’t understand the assignment and did it wrong, it would reinforce their mistakes. Of course, today a lot of schools offer help online, but how many teenagers want to admit they don’t understand something?

    When I am overwhelmed, my writing is often the first thing to go, since no one is standing over me to make sure I get it done. Unfortunately, self-discipline and procrastination do not make good roommates. When it is really bad, I try to take a day or a weekend and do something totally different and give my beleaguered mind a rest.

    Did I mention I won Miss Procrastination three years running? Well, I would have if I had found the time to apply for it.

  6. Too much homework. Period.

    Homework does not equate to learning. Free time can be education, too, especially in a household as intellectually rich as yours.

    Rebel against the system!

  7. I’m reading this with absolute fascination. The nuns really piled on the homework when I was a kid and I couldn’t watch TV until it was finished.
    German-Americans did not believe in fun, especially for kids.
    Please help your overworked kids. They’ll have enough drudgery as adults.

  8. I, on the other hand, wish my son’s high school would give him *some* homework. It would indicate they’re challenging him. Since teachers in our district are evaluated and rewarded primarily by how their students do on standardized tests, they teach to the test and consider their job done. When the day’s final bell rings the teachers are off campus faster than the kids. Really.

    But that doesn’t alter your main premise about procrastinating, which is true. In fact, I’m putting off my work by responding to this post!

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