Care and Feeding

My 5-Year-Old’s Teacher Thinks He Should Do Two Hours of Homework a Night

And my wife is pushing him way too hard.

A woman tries to get a boy to do homework.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Our 5-year-old son recently started kindergarten. Every Wednesday, he gets a homework packet. The packet contains four or five pages, front and back, which he has to complete by the following Wednesday. In addition, he has lists of words and word sounds he’s supposed to practice at home, as well as short books he’s supposed to read. Frankly, it’s a lot for a 5-year-old, and it’s causing him anxiety. The problem is, my wife insists he complete as much of the work as possible every night. Some nights, he spends two to three hours on schoolwork, only leaving the table to shower. Granted, he gets distracted during this time (he’s 5), and has outbursts because he’s “bored” or just tired, so he’s not actually studying for three hours straight.

But he’s also not playing or coloring or riding his bike or just being a kid. He’s just sitting there, thinking about schoolwork. This morning, my wife insisted he study vocabulary before school, as we were all rushing to get ready, even though he spent all of last night on homework. As if five minutes of practice on the way out the door would do him any good. (He actually asked to go to school just to get out of it.) I know this pressure from her is coming from a good place, wanting him to succeed and understand the importance of hard work. But maybe because I suffer from anxiety myself and understand how pressure contributes to that, I worry about his mental and emotional health. (As a side note, our differing views on this is causing tension in our marriage as well.) Am I wrong to insist on a bit more balance between work and play?

—What Happened to Finger Painting?

Dear WHtFP,

This school is being ridiculous. The incident with your wife trying to get your son to study vocabulary before school is also ridiculous. He is already spending way too much time on schoolwork outside of school, and I suggest that you start quietly sounding out the other kindergarten parents to see how they feel about the homework load. Ultimately, I think your goal should be to get the school to back off. This is not at all impossible; I’ve seen parents get rid of unacceptable homework standards in the past by ganging up and pointing out how strong the research is backing their case.

Then there’s the question of your wife. I would hope that you take the lead on “playing,” so that it becomes something you do with your son (parks and museums and goofing around in the yard), so she doesn’t see it as just another thing she’s failing at. I also do think couples counseling might be wise, considering your anxiety and that you’ve stated this is actively interfering with your marriage. In the meantime, I think you should ask that there be literally zero schoolwork in the morning before school, which any parent can tell you is the messiest and most stressful time of the day and is going to make him resent education (and his mother) faster than anything else could.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Thank you so much for your column. I think I am at the point where I need some help. My husband and I have twin 3-year-old boys and we are having a really hard time. We both work full time and our life is just busy. But a few months ago, my husband started saying things like “I am having a hard time with the boys, they just scream at me all the time” and “I dread when you come home with them because it’s constant yelling.” I think my husband has some sensory processing issues so the yelling really gets to him. From what he says, they yell at him from when they wake up to when they get dropped off at day care (while I am at work). He is at the end of his rope. So I have been trying to give him a break by basically taking both boys and leaving the house, going anywhere we can, but then I never get a break and get resentful that I he gets to hang out at home and watch TV in his pajamas, and then I feel guilty for being resentful because he is having a hard time.

I think there are two problems. How on earth do you get them to stop yelling and fighting? I have been trying consistent limits and short separations from play when they start yelling (and praise when we do use inside voices), but is this even right? I have no idea! The second problem is my husband’s expectations. Just last night, he was asking one boy “why did you yell in my ear?” over and over again like a trial attorney, and I feel like a 3-year-old doesn’t really have the cognitive ability to answer this. What are some reasonable expectations? Right now, I am just at my wit’s end with all three of them.

—I Can’t Do It All

Dear ICDIA,

There is so much going on here! When I first started reading your letter, I thought “yep, 3-year-old twins, two parents working, there’s going to be stress.” But your description of your husband’s relentless hounding of one of your sons makes me more inclined to think he’s causing a lot of these behaviors.

Do they yell constantly when they are with you? Stressing “indoor voices” and praising them for achieving such voices is indeed a good method, but you both need to be on the same page with it. So, yet again, I am packing you off to couples counseling. You clearly feel used, you resent the amount of free time your husband is getting while you “save” him from the twins, and he is not interacting in a healthy manner with the kids.

Yelling 3-year-olds are normal, if aggravating, and you can work on that in the course of normal parenting. Your husband, however, is not behaving as a father ought to, and that’s more important to fix than something as transient and expected as 3-year-olds acting like 3-year-olds.

If couples counseling is not an option (reticence on his part, cost), you’ll have to find time to sit down and hash this out one on one. Don’t spring it on him; make it clear that the twins are a lot right now and you want to be on the same page with them. You can empathize, but you need to achieve more fairness in how you divide child care, and you need to address the incident described at the end of your letter.

Keep me posted.

• If you missed Sunday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Our 5-year-old son switched to a different school this year. He’s barely a month in and we have had more notes sent home to us regarding his behavior than we had in two-plus years of day care and junior kindergarten combined. Almost all involve him hitting, kicking, or punching other kids. (I also didn’t really appreciate the tone of the most recent one but that’s beside the point here.)

When we question him about it, he claims it’s retaliatory only (i.e., they hit him first) and I’m inclined to believe him. I’ve watched him play with other kids for years now and he’s never shown a propensity for initiating fights before. I also wonder if maybe it’s not so much that his behavior has changed but that maybe this school is reacting more strongly to it than his previous school did. I’ve seen groups of kids at play and they are always getting into squabbles and little scuffles and then a few minutes later they are BFs again. He’s identified three boys by name who bother him regularly and says they sometimes bother other kids besides him as well. We’ve suggested trying to avoid playing with these boys.

I’d like to initiate a conversation with his teachers about it, not to be that parent who insists that their child is an angel who can do no wrong, since that is definitely not the case here, but to get a better handle on what’s going on so as to get it to stop. I worry that he’s in danger of getting a “troublemaker” rap slapped on him as well and he’ll be viewed by his teachers as a “problem” to be managed. I just want to approach her in a way that is positive and proactive while still advocating for my child.

—Not a Bully

Dear NaB,

It sounds to me like your son is, in fact, almost certainly roughing up other kids to a degree that his teachers are finding upsetting and in need of correction. The fact that he behaves differently at home and out and about with his parents is not even remotely uncommon. He may indeed be reacting to a new school environment and bringing a lot of emotions into that, but in 2019 any school is going to reach out to alert parents if their child is “hitting, kicking, or punching” other students.

If I were you, I would ask for a meeting with his teacher and get as many details as you can, while positioning yourself on the side of law and order. Do not go in annoyed by the “tone” of the letter. Go in with an open mind. Ask if you can observe his recess behavior from a window. Start writing dates and incidents down. You can ask about the three boys he mentioned, but generally just gather information to the best of your ability.

Ask him how he feels about moving, missing his old friends, his old school. He may be processing things below the surface.

Dear Care and Feeding,

As a 28-year-old expectant mother, I am in a difficult spot with my parents and brother. My brother has severe mental health issues that have been continuously made worse by hard drugs. He is 31 years old, has never held a job for more than two months, lives in a home my parents bought him (along with a car), gets money from them, and in my opinion holds them hostage with his suicidal claims and blackout rage. He has been this way for as long as I can remember, and causes me severe PTSD from remembering a childhood growing up with him.

My husband and I are as supportive of my parents as we can be, but are losing empathy, since they will not allow him to reach rock bottom and continue to aid his horrible choices with the thought that they are “helping.” We do not want him to be around our newborn baby when she arrives, and would like to cut him out of our lives entirely, but can’t figure out how to do this without damaging the wonderful relationship we have with my parents.

—Off the Rails

Dear OtR,

You’re completely correct that anyone with “blackout rage” and hard drug problems who has no intention of seeking treatment for his mental health issues has no place around your baby.

This will at least dent your relationship with your parents. I am glad he is merely living in a house your parents bought him and not in their house. That will make this easier. You can tell them that your brother is dangerous, and you love him, but you don’t want to raise a child who thinks Uncle David is safe.

You can tell them you want to minimize the impact on their relationship with your child, so make it clear you’ll be happy to visit their house if your brother is not present, but you will be immediately leaving if he “just drops by.” I do not trust them to have your child on their own, and I think the majority of visits should be at your own home.

They won’t love this. I think they’ll prefer it to not having access to their grandchild. You will probably have to pack up and leave a few times (and take a break before coming back). I’m so sorry for your childhood: You deserved better protection.

—Nicole

More Advice From Slate My 15-year-old daughter is best friends with “Emily,” whose family life is precarious at best. Emily is at our house so much that we basically have two daughters. Emily knew she was bi early on. Within the last year or so, my daughter came out as lesbian. Now they’re a couple, which I fully support. However, they’re young, and their plans to be romantically involved forever aren’t realistic. If, and presumably when, they break up, how do we navigate our lives as a family?