“So, here I am…A desperate single mom begging for help”


I recently responded to a friend’s request about a struggle she is having with her daughter. I think she was brave to say what others have not, so here is her email to me and my response to her within her email. It is long, but so are nights struggling with your child because he or she will not do homework! Please comment with your thoughts…

So, here I am… A desperate (embarrassed, possibly mortified) single mom begging for help…

My daughter has decided she won’t do class work in class. (she is in the second grade). The teacher puts them in groups to do the classwork, but she refuses to do it, or chats up the others, or coaxes them into not doing the work.  So, the teacher has had to put her at her own desk– I guess shaming her into compliance?– but my daughter acts like this is a reward.  And, still doesn’t do the work. When asked why she isn’t doing the work, she told the teacher “it is pointless”.  She now has a folder filled with “unfinished work” and the teacher is going to start giving her zeros…  If she does the work, it is rushed and done just to get to do something else– so she gets Cs on work for which she is capable of getting As.

My response: Does she appear to be motivated to avoid the zero? It seems she is not that motivated by the achievement of the A. Sometimes this can backfire if the zero is not aversive. 

When you say, “she is capable of getting A’s,” what do you mean? Has she ever gotten As? Has she been tested (IQ/Achievement)? I am a little worried (reading ahead, of course) there is something to this. Why is the work is so aversive that avoiding the work is more powerful than gaining access to things she likes? It sounds like there might be something about the attention and the interactions with you (pushing your buttons, even) that is reinforcing this, but I am still looking at the academic piece of this.

One way to test it (“test”…not something you would do every night) is to put something out there that would be immediately VERY rewarding. Something really pretty awesome…trip to Baskin-Robins, RedBox, special movie night, special dinner night, etc. she can earn if and when she finished the work with quality (not 100%, but something reasonable). This will set up the “optimal” arrangement to see if that thing overpowers the aversiveness of the homework. This will help you determine if it is a “can’t do” problem or a “won’t do” problem. From there, we can move on.

Remember that sometimes the “won’t do” is based on the amount of the work, not the difficulty, so think also about putting something out there at the very beginning so she can earn escape from half the work if she does the first half by herself (with certain quality).

Also remember she ultimately has control over the escape (you will need to allow her to not do it). If she does it, you again have the “can’t do/won’t do” problem somewhat answered…at least for the moment.

As if this isn’t bad enough, my daughter makes homework excruciatingly painful.  She pitches these huge fits– banging her head into the table, destroying the worksheet or paper– instead of doing the work.  I know she can do the work.  She knows the answers, so this seems to be some way of punishing me for making her do the work when she would rather go out to play. If I try to sit down and do it with her, she manipulates me into giving her the answers.  If I refuse to give her the answers, let the fits begin!  It has been suggested that I video these fits and show them to her later to see what she thinks.

My response: Please don’t do that!

I am currently using the “ignore the behavior not the kid tactic,” but it isn’t working.  I continue cooking or doing my work and try to talk about the homework, or dinner, but the fit keeps going.

My response: Good option to try. 

This week’s desperate tactic was to reward in class work by taking her to see “The Sound of Music.”  She hasn’t been complying. I took it away, but gave her the option to earn it back by bringing home the unfinished work folder and doing the work before the performance.  I suggested she would be able to start with a clean slate on Monday if she was all caught up.  I am not sure if this will work, but she seemed receptive…. I do realize this is a complete cave on my part.  I don’t want to punish her.  I just want her to do the work!

My response: I agree with you on getting something that is important for her tied into the work, and it is not a “cave” on your part. Let me say it again…not a cave-in.

Ultimately, you have to present her with something that matters to her so you can back away and have the power of the potential reward be the driving force instead of you. However, I would opt for something much more immediate and repetitive on a daily basis.

This is about the long term…not just about getting her to do it tonight.

What does she like to do at night? Do you think there is a part of this driven by her need for your attention and interaction? I think this might be something to do with it, although maybe not all of it.

Is there a way you can set up something special or something she enjoys each night? Access to computer time? Access to game system? TV time with you? Play time with you?Something like that? (Note the interaction time with you is something I am including on purpose, since I do think there is a part about interacting with you that is powerful).

If you think there is something like that you can use to motivate the work, I would use it. Note that I used the word “access” instead of the phrase “taking away if she doesn’t.” Control access to these things or activities and grant it when she finishes. Do not “take away” or say, “you can’t if you don’t.” Say, “if you ____, then you can.” Sounds like a semantic difference…its not.

It is all about having as many opportunities to experience the benefits of doing it right vs. the costs of not doing it right. The more often you have the opportunities, the quicker she learns. Therefore, I typically don’t like bigger, longer-term rewards, but would rather opt for smaller, more frequent ones.

And, I just think there is something about parents taking children to things like “The Sound of Music that is important, and does not need to be wrapped up in a long term contingency. Why?

  1. Because I think it is tough to stretch something out like that (the reward is too far away and too disconnected from the behavior).
  2. It usually breaks down anyway because parents take the time off or buy tickets ahead of time with full intentions of going and, therefore, are likely to screw their own system in the meantime.
  3. It is one opportunity that comes and goes (i.e., “then what?”).

With that said, if you made the deal, stick with it (and prepare for the fall out if it doesn’t come through (i.e., stock the wine cabinet). If she does make it, make a huge deal about it.

If you want to do something like this (and I suggest you do), make the rules immensely clear. Clarify everything. Every day describe exactly what “do your homework” means. Quality, quantity, etc. Quantify it. Give your help at the beginning, NOT after she freaks. If you are confident “she can do it,” make double sure and then back away and let the power of the reward be the motivation. Hang on tight and say, “as soon as you finish ______, then you can_______.”

Put a time limit on it. Once the time is up, let it be up. Don’t harp on it. Don’t drag it out. At that point you are punishing yourself and creating kryptonite out of homework and a torture chamber out of your dining room table (given that is where you are doing the homework). Here is the hard part: allow her to not do it.  Oh well, she did not do it and she did not earn her iPad time…oh well, there is always tomorrow.

Go about your night. Don’t feel like you have to torture her with it. Let it be over and let the absence of the reward be the drive (because tomorrow it will be more powerful since she didn’t do it tonight).

Treat each day as its own. Do not roll over across days and let immense piles of work pile up. This will make her less and less likely to do the work. You might have to sacrifice a worksheet here and there to make it feasible for her (and you) to gain some momentum with this. If she continues to need support at school, she will get it.

Let the teacher know what you are doing. I would first concentrate on tying the rewards at home to the homework and not to the work at school. If it is powerful enough, she will do more work at school because she will want to do less at home.

Sounds cliché, but you are not alone with this.

I always recommend Glenn Latham’s book, “The Power of Positive Parenting.” Awesome and easy read. Not a cover to cover thing either. Pick and choose what you want.

Good luck…let me know how it goes,


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