The Battle Over Homework: Getting Your Kids to Knuckle Down

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You’ve tried carrots. You’ve tried sticks. But how do you get a recalcitrant child to do his or her homework?

Psychologists at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research think they may have an answer to that age-old question. They conducted two studies to test their ideas. First, they interviewed 266 Detroit eighth-graders about their work habits and their career aspirations. Although the vast majority of the kids said they intended to attend college one day, it was the students who pictured themselves actually working in education-dependent jobs who were doing their homework each night. That gave the researchers an idea. They then went back to the schools for a second study — this time talking to seventh-graders — and they presented some data on average earnings in the U.S., and highlighting the huge salary advantage of people in education-dependent jobs like doctors and lawyers. That night, the students were offered an extra-credit assignment. Seventh-graders who’d just seen the salary presentation were far more likely — eight times more likely — to complete it than similar kids who had not seen the presentation, and who were offered a different extra-credit assignment in their regular class.

It turns out, then, that kids are just like the rest of us: They work hard when they believe the results will make a difference in their lives. This new study, due to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, was conducted among mostly low-income students — so for them the promise of money may mean more than it does for higher-income kids who’ve never had to worry about cash. But the take-away message may not be so different. According to the researchers, the findings show that kids are more likely to do homework when they see assignments as an investment that matters for their future selves, and not just a pointless chore.