“The Child Is Made to Study Far, Far Beyond His Physical Strength”

The long history of parents complaining about their kids’ homework.

19th-century story illustration of an elderly lady leaning over a boy working at his homework.
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If you find yourself stressed, annoyed, and furious about your child’s homework this fall, it might help to know that you are participating in a great American tradition. In January 1900, Edward Bok wrote a scathing editorial in Ladies’ Home Journal about homework in America, with the headline “A National Crime at the Feet of American Parents.” “The child is made to study far, far beyond his physical strength, and consequently his mental good,” Bok pronounced. The elementary and junior high school student, Bok wrote, shouldn’t even need to tote books home from school, because he should be outside with his friends between dismissal and dinner—and after that, he should be asleep. “To rob a child of the playtime which belongs to him is a rank injustice,” Bok argued. “No child under fifteen years of age should be given any home study whatever by his teachers.”

In October of 1900, Bok followed up on his polemic, writing that since it had published, the magazine had received “hundreds of letters from teachers and parents” that “conclusively showed that the facts were even much worse than had been stated,” along with letters from “physicians, almost without number” who “urged the elimination of this evil and injury from the lives of our children.” Bok suggested that parents could act. They should send notes to teachers “stating that under no circumstances whatever will the father and mother permit any home study by the child.” And according to the editor, thousands did just that.

We often think of the American past as a time when students labored for hours in candlelit rooms to meet rigorous educational standards. But as the education researcher Brian Gill and the historian Steven Schlossman have reported in a series of articles, ever since the early 20th century, when American law began to require that all children go to school, many American parents have found homework infuriating. They’ve even complained about helping their kids with math, just like you.

In the 19th century, school instruction revolved around memorization and recitation. Students rehearsed at home and performed at school, “saying their lessons” for the teacher; instructors might shame or physically punish children for a lack of preparedness. But only a small percentage of students got past the fourth grade, and homework contributed to the high dropout rate. Families often couldn’t afford to lose their children’s help in the afternoon and evening hours; having a child go to high school might mean having to hire an extra farmhand or clerk, and for many, this was prohibitive.

As far as historians can tell, the small group of well-to-do parents who could keep their children in school through junior high and high school in the 19th century expected their kids to spend the evening studying and didn’t find the prospect too upsetting. There were some exceptions, to be sure. Gen. Francis A. Walker, a Civil War veteran and economist who was the president of the school board in Boston in the 1880s, described his own experience helping his kids with their math homework: “Over and over again, I have had to send my own children, in spite of their tears and remonstrances, to bed, long after the assigned tasks had ceased to have any educational value and had become the means of nervous exhaustion and agitation.” Walker got the school board to restrict the city’s schoolteachers from assigning math homework except in “exceptional cases.” But mostly, the 19th century consensus was that if a student couldn’t handle the homework, he was free to drop out.

After laws passed in the late 19th and early 20th century mandated compulsory school attendance for children and teenagers, anti-homework sentiment grew. More and more parents were experiencing what it was like to have a school make demands on their children’s time, and everyone was trying to figure out what family life would look like in this new world. Parents’ resistance to homework, as articulated in articles like Bok’s, aligned with a lot of other things people believed about childhood starting in the early 20th century: that children should be outdoors; that they shouldn’t participate in rigorous intellectual activity when they were young; and that their developing bodies were at risk of permanent damage if they were stressed by “overwork.” Anti-homework activists often cited the contemporaneous campaign to restrict child labor, wondering why it made sense for schoolchildren to work more hours in a week than they might have if they had been paid for their labor.

By 1901, the year after Bok’s articles ran in the Journal, “two-thirds of American urban school districts had restricted homework,” Peter Stearns writes in his history of parental anxiety. In testimony he gave before Congress in 1900, William Torrey Harris, the U.S. commissioner of education, said that homework was “a prolific source of abuse” that “ought to be rigidly limited so that the child does not study more than two hours per day out of school after he is 12 years old, and not any out of school before that time.” These anti-homework efforts were most effective in California, where the state legislature mandated in 1901 that no child under 15 should have any homework at all.

In 1937, Parents’ Magazine asked readers to write in with their homework-related opinions—an article that, because of the probable overlap between middle-class readers of Ladies’ Home Journal and Parents’, serves as a good way to check in on the evolution of parents’ attitudes toward home study since the turn of the century. “A majority of the writers of letters received disapproved of home study for school children,” the magazine reported. Isabel Howell Kerr, of Maryland, had moved with her family from a low-homework school to one with a bigger homework burden and reported that in their new school, the children were miserable, “went to bed with it on their minds at night,” and “did not make as good progress as before.” Ominously, Kerr wrote, her children’s new friends, who had been going to the school for longer, “seemed to have very few resources within themselves and used the movies as their regular form of recreation.”

Consensus on homework’s worth shifted during the Cold War, when many Americans, looking at the educational practices of other countries, began to opine that American children were snowflakes who needed a good dose of 19th-century-style drill. Life magazine ran a comparative article about the lives of an American and a Russian teenager in 1958, and the difference between the two students’ activities during after-school hours was particularly stark. Photographers caught the Russian boy doing science experiments in a quiet parlor, while the American, out with his friends, danced, socialized, and smiled. Unacceptable, many who wrote in response to this piece thought; how could we expect to keep up with the Russians if our young men spent the hours between school and bed drinking sodas with girls?

More than one author writing about the history of homework notes that since the ’40s, we’ve swung back and forth on the topic in 15-year cycles: 15 years of homework rejection, 15 years of homework celebration. The late ’60s and early ’70s, a time of youth liberation, brought another anti-homework backlash. Cathy Vatterott, a professor of education and present-day homework reformer, cites a 1968 statement on homework limitation by the American Educational Research Association: “Whenever homework crowds out social experience, outdoor recreation, and creative activities, and whenever it usurps time that should be devoted to sleep, it is not meeting the basic needs of children and adolescents.”

Just in time, the 1980s ushered in a new commitment to homework. The government’s report “A Nation at Risk,” published in 1983, contained the line “History is not kind to idlers.” Not surprisingly, the report held that high schoolers should have far more homework than they did, to prepare them to compete with the Japanese, South Koreans, and Germans. But by the late 1990s the pendulum swung again, and we were back to the idea of homework abolition, with cover stories in Newsweek and Time lamenting homework’s effects on what early-20th-century writers would have called “home life.” If the 15-year theory of American homework sentiment holds, we’re in a pro-homework period right now, when homework is assigned to younger and younger kids; some parents of kindergarteners are now reporting sitting with tired 5-year-olds at the end of the day to get a packet of worksheets done.

As present-day researchers on the topic have found, the answer to the question “Does homework help children learn?” is “It depends”—on the amount assigned, the age of the students, and the content of the homework. The “it depends” position has some precedent in the past. Gill and Schlossman identified a group of progressive educators who, from the 1920s through the 1950s, advocated homework reform rather than abolition. The idea was to connect home with school by crafting assignments that applied things learned in class to the rest of the world. The superintendent of New York City’s schools, William J. O’Shea, wrote in 1929 that homework could consist of reading, drawing, or visiting museums; others thought field trips to “woods, factories, museums, libraries, art galleries” could be “assigned” as homework. Other teachers thought students might write thank-you notes for their English homework or look at the family budget for their math homework. (Would I rather help my child with a multiplication worksheet or expose her to the horror that is our family budget? Tough call.)

Why can’t we seem to find a happy middle ground on homework? Brian Gill and Steven Schlossman observe that “homework has been one of the most emotionally charged topics in American education. … One side has idealized homework: The more the better. The other side has demonized homework.” The history of homework protest shows how the debate over homework has always been about a much bigger question: What is childhood for? There’s little wonder we can’t agree.