February 17, 2010

My six year old niece came home from kindergarten the other day with homework. Nothing too strenuous, just a “shapes and colors” exercise. It didn’t take her very long to do and she was soon able to turn her attention to more important things like using her Uncle Chris as her personal exercise apparatus. At one point, when I had her all wrapped up in my arms I said, “So, how often do you have homework?” “Every Monday and Wednesday,” she replied. “Wow,” I started to think, “homework in kindergarten.” I mean, Molly is still at the age where before she heads out anywhere you have to make sure the buttons are lined up correctly on the coat, everything that needs to be zipped up is zipped, and she is wearing socks that are the same color.    I suppose her school is trying early on to get the children used to the idea of homework and to involve the parents in the classroom work but I still can’t get my head around the idea of homework in kindergarten.    Aside from a project or two that we had to do at home, I don’t remember getting homework in school until I was in middle school. Maybe we did, I just don’t remember it.

A few weeks ago, one of the students in my sixth grade religion class came in carrying a knapsack that would have brought a Klondike mule to its knees. She was so bowed down with this bag she looked like a slave extra from the “Ten Commandments” movie. “What are you going to do with all those rocks?” I said to her.    “What rocks?” “The ones in your knapsack,” I replied. She gave me that sixth- grade girl look, you know the one where she thinks you’re a complete moron and said, “Hello, they’re my homework.” “What, are you studying to be a librarian and you have to catalogue a bunch of books or something?” I asked. “No,” she said, “It’s just my homework.” I turned to one of the other students who was bag-less and said, “What? No homework?” He told me that he had left his knapsack in his mom’s car. Further conversation with the kids revealed that they all had a bag full of books waiting for them when they got home about an hour and a half to two hours of work. As it turns out, we were doing the chapter on Exodus and the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt that day so I got to have a little fun with the image of backpacks, slave baskets and burdens. The kids just kept rolling their eyes and telling me they got it.

Later on I started thinking once again about how my experience of school and school work was so different from theirs. There is a lot more pressure on children today than there was when I was growing up. It’s not just the obvious increase in homework but other things as well: peer pressure and bullying, the internet, sports leagues and travel teams, the increase in divorce and single parent households, parents who work longer and longer hours and are absent from home more and more, and many other factors all place a lot of stress on our kids. All this makes it that much harder for parents to nurture and raise their children to be happy, healthy and successful adults. Yet, many still do and doing it well.

Now, I’m not about to stick my nose into an issue like “how much homework is too much?” I’ll leave that to others elsewhere. But I would offer that there is another type of homework that may help our children and families not only cope with the stresses of the day but also grow in their love for each other and for God. This ‘home-work’ we call prayer. In my religion class, we always begin with prayer. Not only does it kind of calm and center the class, but it also offers an opportunity for the kids to meditate a bit on what’s going on in their lives. After we pray the “Our Father” together, I always ask, “Does anyone have someone or something they want us to pray for?” Sometimes the responses are a bit silly – “for tomorrow’s test, for my goldfish who died” – but often, the prayers are heartfelt – “for the kid in our school who has cancer, for my grandpa who’s sick, for the soldiers in Iraq.” You get the idea. We end with a prayer that recalls God’s love and care for us all, asking Him to grant all this through Christ our Lord.    I’m sure there are many families in our parish who pray together around the dining room table (that is when you can find the time to sit down together as a family to eat) and pray with their children when they tuck them in at night (although this gets a bit difficult as the kids get older). But, as in all things of God, there is always an opportunity to do more. Maybe when we say grace at meals, we might simply ask, “anyone else we should pray for or any special prayer of thanks today?” and pause for a few moments of silence or petition or voice a simple reminder to our older children, “Don’t forget to say your prayers” as they go to bed. This little bit of “home-word” may not get rid of life’s pressures, but it sure makes them easier to bear.