By M.M. Devoe
I know I’m not the only mom out there with a boy who can’t remember to bring his homework home, but sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who can’t figure out what to do about it.
I have tried everything: begging, rewards, threats, charts, teacher intervention…everything. My son still regularly comes home, tells me he has reading homework, and then discovers he has left the book at school. Or at piano lessons. Or worse: he has no idea where. He always looks overwhelmed and surprised.
At least three times a week.
So I attended a two-day, ludicrously expensive organizational skills workshop for middle-school kids. It was lousy. They gave no practical advice at all, but they did make up some really long, pointless, and impossible-to-recall names for “creatures”—the voices in your head that keep you from being organized. I had to rephrase everything I learned in a coherent way before I could even understand it. And now I understand it. We are possessed by demons.
So let me save you all $700.
There are four ways kids get in trouble over homework:
The Memory Demon says, “You can remember this; don’t bother writing it down.”
The Clutter Demon says, “You don’t have time for filing and organizing right now; do it later.”
The Gamer Demon says, “You have plenty of time to do both; so do the fun thing first.”
The Time Demon says, “You don’t need to plan; you’ll just do it.”
Apparently, kids like my son have real issues with organization because the voices in their heads are so confident. Demons! Demons! Constantly telling them those lines. So the Memory Demon whispers and my son doesn’t use his planner, doesn’t write down assignments because he’s positive he can remember the first assignment, maybe he’s even excited about it; then the second one comes, and when the third is assigned, there just doesn’t seem time to write it all down, but that’s ok, he knows he’s got three assignments….
“I’ve got three assignments,” he brightly announces after school, slamming an empty backpack on the floor.
“What are they?”
“Uh…” His eyes dart wildly, “History, I think?”
Then the Clutter Demon speaks and he won’t store or transfer papers to the proper place because he figures he’ll do it just a bit later, same reason he doesn’t organize or put away important items in their proper places.
“Hey, Mom,” he shouts across the house, “You have to sign this permission slip!”
“Stop shouting across the house. Just bring it to me.”
“I didn’t want it to get crushed, so I didn’t put it in my backpack. There’s a smushed banana in there.”
“So where’s the slip?”
“What? It’s … I don’t know. Somewhere. I might have left it in the gym.”
Next, the Gamer Demon takes charge: “I don’t have much homework, I’m going to play Minecraft for a while.”
Four hours later …”Are you still up? It’s 10:00!”
“But I’m doing homework!”
Kids do not know anything about time estimation, have no concept of how long something might take, and can’t stop in the middle of a fun activity to take on a really dreary one.
The Time Demon runs it all: kids have no idea how to break down tasks into steps and plan what they need for each step. To them, an assignment to read a book is going to take the same amount of time as a science fair project or a math worksheet. Actually, the worksheet is probably shorter, so they can play a video game first.
See how the demons work?
All of this is normal. These are skills that need to be taught … it’s not instinctive. Some people never learn it for themselves—how many adults stay up late reading a good book and are surprised when it’s suddenly four in the morning? (Guilty!) Who knows a good guy who swears he will take on the short job list … as soon as he watches the game? How many of us run out to the store without a list because it’s just three items—and come back without one of them? Sound familiar? It’s just demons.
I’ll leave you with one piece of practical advice that another mom told me: replace the standard three-ring binder with a tabbed accordion folder with an attached cover flap. Active kids like my son tend to tear papers and then they get lost because what normal mom has those little hole reinforcers on hand, or time to put them on? Our kids want to get it right—and sometimes it’s just about handing them the right tools.
But how do I conquer the Clutter Demon? The workshop said I must teach my son to organize better.
Oh, gee. Thanks.
M.M. Devoe is a NYC-based author whose fiction has won or been shortlisted for 23 literary prizes. She is anthologized alongside Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood, and has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Pen Parentis and is a Columbia University Writing Fellow and MFA. Find her at www.mmdevoe.com and Twitter @mmdevoe.
Illustration by Christine Juneau