I have this recurring nightmare.
In permutations ranging from mildly fitful to full-blown heart-pounding, it has invaded my nights every few months for decades. I don't remember exactly when it began, but my best guess is that--not at all coincidentally--the first occasion was shortly after my third-grade teacher stood up in front of the class, chalk poised, and spoke these ominous words: "Boys and girls, today we're going to learn all about something called long division."
The settings and supporting cast vary kaleidoscopically, but the theme is always the same: I am a child in school, class is about to begin, and I am doomed because I neglected to do my homework, or I did it but I got it all wrong, or I did it but on the way to school I was attacked by a hideous green monster who tore it all to shreds with his long fangs.
Funny, I never fear the monster as much as the teacher. After all, the worst it can do is eat me alive. The teacher, however, can see to it that I'm trapped in school doing this same work until I'm older than she is. Aiiieeee!
Of course, I can always escape by waking up. But then all it takes is a few words from my son or daughter--"Mom, I need help with my homework"--to make me realize that there was no escape after all.
This year I'm on my third trip through the sixth grade--the first was my own, the second my son's and this time it's my daughter's. I'm also in seventh grade again, for the first time since nineteensixtysomething.
This time around, I'm not the one who has to write the spelling words four times each. Which is just as well, because this time, when I'm not learning the difference between deciduous and evergreen or multiplying fractions, I also have to work full time and single-handedly keep a household up and running.
No, I'm not one of those mothers who spend their hours lovingly crafting replicas of the California missions out of sugar cubes just so they can admire their handiwork with feigned astonishment on open house night. I don't rush to the rescue and polish off those last six math problems when my weary child has fallen asleep at the desk.
But I have long since learned that even though I already have a piece of paper stashed away in some box somewhere certifying that I did indeed escape from school--legitimately, with honors yet--being a mom means I must become not only a student again but a teacher as well.
For one thing, my kids spend their days sitting in a classroom with about 35 other students, as do their counterparts in most Orange County public schools. If any one of those children doesn't happen to understand a crucial element of a lesson, days could pass before even the most conscientious teacher catches the problem.
For another, I want to make sure that my own values figure into the equation. I know many of the other children's parents feel the same way. Trouble is, that's where our agreement ends. So that element of our children's educations falls under the heading of "If you want it done right, do it yourself," with each of us coming up with our own definition of "right."
The question is, how far should a parent go in helping children with their homework? Again, there seem to be as many "right" answers as there are parents.
Should I, as a few mothers I know do, lead my children through their assignments problem by problem? Or should I shut the door and make them fend for themselves, sternly commanding, "You figure it out!" whenever they come running? When they're finished, should I help them correct their papers before the teacher sees their mistakes?
Some teachers insist on parental involvement. My daughter got docked a few weeks ago because I had to work late and wasn't home to sign her reading log. After that, I learned my lesson. "Anything I'm supposed to sign?" I ask her at least once a day.
My approach to helping with homework is to stay on the sidelines as much as possible. I believe that sometimes the best way to help a child learn is to sit on your hands. And as I mentioned before, I do have a few other things to do in my afternoons and evenings.
But when I hear a cry for help, I respond. Sometimes, I admit, reluctantly. Often as not, the mere process of explaining the problem to me is all it takes for my befuddled student to figure out the solution.
So I just stand there and listen, and about two-thirds of the way through the story of Mr. Parker's hypothetical shipping company or Mrs. Gonzalez's imaginary fruit stand, my son or daughter will say, "Oh. I get it. Thanks, mom." By then I'm usually in far enough that I can't just walk away, so we reverse roles and they have to explain to me how it all works. Sometimes they have to explain it more than once, especially when it involves long division.
If necessary, I roll up my sleeves and go through the problem with them, drawing diagrams, bringing in apples and oranges from the kitchen (helps tremendously with those fruit stand questions), sometimes even reading an entire chapter in a social studies book so I can better explain it. Whatever it takes, short of simply blurting out the answer--if I know it.
Some nights the children and I are at it until well past their 9 o'clock bedtime, looking up the meaning of words such as "epidote," rounding to the nearest thousand, learning about the childhoods of George Washington and King Tut.
The later it gets, the testier we get, and the more inclined I am to snatch the paper from my child's hands and say, "Here, I'll do it." But even if I do--and once or twice I have--I know it will be snatched right back. That's the values coming through.
I've debated this issue with other moms--my competition, as it were. I know that if they do their children's state reports or science projects for them--and believe me, there are plenty of moms who do--my children's work won't look quite as good by comparison, however authentic it is.
Those who do confess to going beyond "helping" insist that they have no choice for that very reason: All the other moms do it, and they don't want their child to suffer because of it.
But I prefer to take the risk, even if it means a "B" instead of an "A," even if my child's Popsicle stick fortress or bleach bottle Capitol building does look a little forlorn next to all the others at open house.
I don't have to prove anything. After all, I've already made it through school once. And there's just something about my approach that helps me sleep better at night. Most nights, anyway.