Therapy in L.A.

  article of the month
December 1999
By Dorothea McArthur, Ph.D.

Sometimes I do psychotherapy with children who can do homework but they don't. Instead they delay the task endlessly, often running out of time to complete the tasks. Jerome Bruns wrote a book in 1992 (Penguin Books) entitled They Can But They Don't, in which he explores the kind of kids and parents that tend to become involved with this problem. These are usually not defiant or rebellious kids.

Bruns did some research and discovered that such children have parents who care about them very much, love them a lot and spend time with them. The children he studied with this problem tended to have above average to superior thinking skills. However, a significant percentage of children who don't do homework had been adopted or had personalities that lend themselves to attachment problems. They tended to have difficulty with separation from family, entering school without the confidence needed to perform academically. Some of the parents had become over-involved in handling the problem or protecting the child from learning through mistakes. Other children had parents who over-empower them, allowing them to have more than they should and too often to be in charge of outcome. Such parents can be talked out of setting firm limits.

Brun sees the child's problem as a long-term low self-esteem and sensitivity to criticism problem that gradually improves over time, especially with the right kind of parental interaction. These children would prefer to do no work at all rather than allow parents and teachers to see that they are making mistakes and having difficulty. It is very easy for concerned parents to respond to this frustrating procrastination by becoming worried, over-involved, and critical in a detrimental way.

If you have a child or teen who procrastinates endlessly with homework and chores, I would recommend that you get a copy of Bruns' book. In the meantime I can provide a summary of some of the suggestions he makes to ease the problem.

Parents can:

  1. Communicate interest and support for their child's pursuits outside of school.
  2. Have a positive relationship with your children as part of building a good self image.
  3. Refrain from asking a lot of questions or giving reminders, or nagging about school and homework.
  4. Be available to listen to whatever your child has to say.
  5. Find ways to play with your child for the fun of it in ways that don't involve learning.
  6. Set clear limits on negative behavior without arguing.
  7. Have few rules but make them important (i.e. be considerate of others, give a helping hand, be safe.)
  8. Be strong and silent when enforcing rules to avoid arguing.
  9. Ignore annoying behavior or leave the scene.
  10. Remove privileges rather than nagging, threatening or using physical punishment.
  11. Interact in "teachable moments" to aid in learning.
  12. Tell your children that homework is their responsibility. You are available to help.
  13. Do not correct their work.
  14. Do not worry out loud, "I am afraid you will be a dropout," or "You'll never get a high school diploma." This further damages a child's fragile self esteem.
One student was asked, "Which kids do their homework and which don't?" The student responded, "Oh that is easy! The parents of the kids who do their work never tell them to do to it and the parents of the kids who don't do their work always tell them" (pg. 149). When your child does not respond well to homework, it is easy to get overly involved. Some children also have learning difficulties or attention deficit problems which further complicate the problem.

Parents can find some new direction in this book with the details provided to be successful. I recommend that you do not regard this article as a sufficient substitute for reading the whole book.

Dr. McArthur is a psychotherapist in practice in Los Angeles. She is the President of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.

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