By Rav Yaakov Bender
First published in Mishpacha Magazine
The letter I received from out of town contained a plea for help and guidance from a frum father navigating a particularly onerous challenge in chinuch habonim — and a relatively new one.
My son spends close to eight hours in school. When he arrives back at home we want to be able to kick back and relax together. We would also love to be able to spend the time with him and our other children pressure-free, playing a game, having a catch, reading or just stam schmoozing — which, by the way, all psychologists say is invaluable and the foundation of creating a warm relationship.
Instead, after supper is over, a big dark cloud begins to descend over our home. A nightly point of contention begins to roil, creating a negative and toxic atmosphere in our home.
It’s called homework.
This father is hardly alone. Countless other parents have expressed similar sentiments, lamenting the fact that after a long day in school — particularly girls’ schools — our children are expected to spend hours on homework.
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not against homework per se. It is important for children to briefly review the material they have learned in school and for their parents to keep abreast of their progress. Homework enables both. But the operative word must be: brief. And I believe that it is incumbent on us as mechanchim and mechanchos to take a step back and ask ourselves: Is the homework load that we are placing on our students — and their parents — a component of effective chinuch? Or is it cruelty?
I do not enjoy writing harsh words, especially about our educators. Today’s rabbeim and teachers are the best of the best and truly care about each student. But how can we demand of parents that they spend, often after a full day’s work, whatever remaining waking hours they have together with their children helping them with their homework?
Boruch Hashem, the Torah community is blessed with large families. Let us picture the scene in a home with six children:
Yanky, the toddler, needs to be put to bed. Heshy, the five-year-old, has an earache and cannot find his favorite book. Chanale, eight years old, has homework tonight, in both limudei kodesh and secular studies. Shani, eleven, is studying for not one, but three tests. And Bracha, the teenager, has not had a moment of peace since she walked in the door, as her workload makes it seem as if school and home are seamless: one long day/night of studying and reviewing. Baruch Hashem, at least Meshulem is taken care of, away at yeshivah gedolah for night seder, learning with his chavrusah.
(Many of our families have more than six children. Kein yirbu. We’ll just use this hypothetical family as an example.)
Mommy, who has taken care of her children’s many and varied physical and emotional needs today and also invested several hours at her job, would like to sit down to supper with her husband (if he does come home at a normal hour tonight, before he rushes off to Maariv and a shiur). But she is now also expected to be a teacher. When did hours of nightly homework — much of it outside her intellectual and academic comfort zone — become part of a mother’s responsibility? Is she not overworked enough, running the household and helping her husband pay the bills?
Can mothers and fathers be expected to start mastering volumes of unfamiliar material in order to save their children from embarrassment and poor grades the next morning?
Even an accomplished talmid chochom with broad knowledge in multiple miktza’os haTorah can have a difficult time tackling the obscure subjects included in his children’s coursework. So he sits down at night and immerses himself in a difficult topic — often effectively doing his children’s homework for them — all the while neglecting his wife, who is desperate for his help, and his shtender, which is beckoning for a few minutes of peaceful learning.
And what about the children? When do they actually get to be children?
Yes, they need structure, and yes, hefkeirus is never good for kids, but don’t they need some time at night to unwind? Isn’t it critical for their wellbeing that they be able to share their day with their parents, play with their siblings, perhaps get some fresh air, and prepare for bed peacefully? When, exactly, does school end?
It is 12:45 a.m.
Eleven-year-old Shani has just fallen asleep, her pillow drenched with tears. She has spent the last several frustrating hours studying nonstop, yet she still feels ill-prepared for her impending tests.
Eight-year-old Chanale went to bed in a miserable mood, having failed to secure an audience with either parent to vent her distress at being picked on that day by her classmates.
Thankfully, five-year-old Heshy is sound asleep in his bed. Yanky the toddler is in his crib, dreaming and still clutching his favorite book. In between them is their exhausted mother, who, shortly after leading them in Krias Shema, fell asleep right there.
Meshulem, arriving home from an extended night seder, discovers his teenage sister asleep at the dining room table. Her books are her pillows tonight.
Beside her is Totty, still in his chair, his head slumped forward in slumber, his precious sefer still open in his hands.
How did we get to this point? What, precisely, is the elusive goal that some of our chadorim and Bais Yaakovs are chasing that compels them to saddle our children with a nightly burden that they cannot possibly bear alone, and that their parents are begging for relief from?
We all want our boys to become masmidim and our girls to be knowledgeable and conscientious students. But how do you explain the mindset of mechanchos who assign projects and homework on subjects far outside the ken of the average yeshivah-graduate parent, or who expect their high school students to spend ten hours studying for a Chumash test?
What, exactly, justifies the hours upon hours of agony that our children and parents go through every school night? When are we as a society going to say, “Enough is enough! Dayeinu!”?
The time has come for us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves: Is academic achievement now the only barometer of our sons’ and daughters’ success, to the point that we can allow homework to encroach on the smooth functioning of otherwise peaceful and stable homes? Are we so afraid that our daughters will breathe a bit at night before going to sleep that we must ensure that their every waking minute is filled with study, review, and test preparation?
The time has come for each menahel and menaheles to impose strict limits on the amount of homework that each student is given, taking into account the average family size in that school, as well as the unique circumstances of individual students.
The time of year must be a factor as well. (I once assumed that it goes without saying that homework is not assigned at hectic times such as the week before Pesach, or over Yom Tov, but apparently that is no longer the case.) Perhaps limudei kodesh and secular studies homework should be assigned on alternate nights of the week.
I am not here to impose specific solutions; every school is different. Rather, I am pleading for a return to sanity — not only by our schools, but by their “customers,” the parents, as well. Is it pressure from some parents to outdo competing schools that is forcing the hands of the hanhalah? Is it the mirage of potential acceptance into elite seminaries that is blinding us to the quiet churban going on within our homes on a nightly basis?
Throughout the millennia the Yiddishe shtub has always been more than just a physical house or dwelling; it has been an ideal. That ideal, of a Jewish home suffused with love, yiras Shomayim, simcha, and tranquility, is what has enabled generations of parents to raise beautiful children who walk in their footsteps. It is that ideal that is under attack.
It is time for us to reassess our priorities and take corrective action.
May our parents, teachers, children, and all of Klal Yisroel merit a kesivah vachasimah tovah.
Rav Bender is the rosh yeshivah of Yeshivah Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway, New York.