Saul Austerlitz in NYT Magazine 9.10.23
My kids call me the homework villain.
Every school-day afternoon, my two sons — the older is entering sixth grade, the younger second grade — return home and gather snacks before beginning the day’s homework tussle. They are tired and ready to play video games or to watch incomprehensible YouTube videos about video games. I ignore all complaints, offer up my trademark cackle and direct them to the index cards on our fridge listing the day’s homework: reading, math, writing and even — when I am feeling particularly villainous — Hebrew reading.
For 30 to 60 minutes every weekday, I dash among rooms in our apartment, adjudicating disputes, answering questions, trying and failing to find creative ways to say the same thing (“Sound it out!” “Check your work!”) for the ten-thousandth time. I try to patiently listen to my younger son read, for the 50th time, the same book about a trickster dad and his gardening shenanigans. Then I scuttle off to talk my older son through the steps for a tricky math word problem about dividing up shipments of pencils or deliveries of doughnuts. It is, without question, the most hectic hour of my day. I am some combination of substitute teacher, coach, drill sergeant and motivational speaker, cajoling, pleading and bargaining to get through another round of homework. Some days, the process is utterly lacking in drama; other days, I emerge feeling exhausted, as if I’ve performed my life’s most demanding labor.
I am thankful to be granted the opportunity to walk alongside my kids as they commit to the work of learning.
Homework has fallen out of favor with a new generation of parents and teachers. It is drudgery, they say, rote work that unnecessarily burdens children. These are fair criticisms, and I suspect that my kids might agree with them all.
But here’s the thing: I love homework. It provides me with a means to discover just what my children are spending their days learning, how that learning is progressing and how I might help. Each Monday evening this past school year, my older son and I would drag out our battered Hebrew-English dictionary, look up words from his Hebrew-language book about the life of Charles Darwin and record definitions on a notepad (how do you say “fossil” in Hebrew?). The effort was often draining, but as the year progressed, it was easy to see how much more confident my older son — and I, for that matter — had become when facing a page of Hebrew.
Like bird-watching or gardening, overseeing homework is a specialized and abstruse hobby.
The kids are tasked with solving problems, and I am tasked with solving the problem of how they can best solve problems. I enjoy the daily array of tweaks that teachers suggest — whiteboards, not scrap paper; the dining-room table, not the living-room couch — that help build a successful homework routine. For my older son, typing out his writing assignments in the Notes app on our family iPad best allows the words to flow; for my younger, a sharpened pencil and a spiral notebook with thick lines for his oversize letters serve best. I must also determine the precise amount of intervention that will help my boys learn most effectively.
I don’t love being the bad guy my kids jeer when I remind them that it is homework time once again. But I am thankful to be granted the opportunity to walk alongside them as they commit to the work of learning. I enjoy seeing them overcome the initial impulse that if something doesn’t come easily, it isn’t worth doing. I love bearing witness to the steady accretion of skill, until I notice that my younger son is suddenly reading fluidly, no longer requiring my assistance. I even enjoy the process of tweaking my older son’s math routine, again and again, until all the pieces — whiteboard, marker, dining table, checking your work — cohere. Getting to these moments requires that I remember my place: When do I insert myself, and when do I stay quiet? I was instructed by my younger son’s teachers to let him sound words out as he reads, rather than leaping in with the answer, and I oblige. These are questions, I belatedly realize, that are about more than just homework, questions I will undoubtedly return to again and again as my kids mature and they are required to solve their own problems — academic, social, emotional and moral.
I am not a teacher, but the question of what we can impart to our children is a profound one for any parent — perhaps especially so for Jewish parents like me, the grandson of a refugee forced to flee his country. My grandfather Joseph Austerlitz — whose face I see reflected in my older son’s — left Vienna in 1936, not long before the Nazi Anschluss. He never returned. The only thing he could take with him was his education. If, as his example taught me, we are guaranteed to keep only the things we have learned, I want to ensure that my children hold on to all they can. I want them not only to learn but also to value learning as essential to the nurturing of our individual and collective humanity. I want them to think of knowledge as a partial shield against the indignities, large and small, that life may fling at them. I hope that, after I am no longer there to play the villain, they will cherish their curiosity, guarding it against anything or anyone who might dull it.
Saul Austerlitz is a writer whose latest book is “Kind of a Big Deal” (Dutton, 2023).