Editor’s Note: Every Tuesday, Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer take questions from readers about their kids’ education. Have one? Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Abby and Brian,
I am a stepparent to a second grader (let’s call her Ella) who is in full-time virtual school. Her father and I share custody of Ella 50–50 with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. When Ella is at her mother’s house, she never completes her schoolwork. This pattern has been going on for months.
From what we understand, her mother has given Ella the impression that the schoolwork is optional, and this conflicts with our trying to teach Ella about intrinsic motivation and the importance of following through on things that may be challenging or boring initially. When we have confronted her mother, we hear that she is “too busy” to manage Ella’s schoolwork, although Ella tells us that they often play video games together throughout the day. Other than that, Ella won’t discuss with us the reasons the work isn’t getting done and shuts down emotionally when we ask.
I understand that there may be a difference in value systems between the two households, and that Ella might be a little young for the ideals of personal responsibility we are trying to impress upon her. That said, I’m just tired of Ella having to catch up on the week’s schoolwork when she arrives here, as it puts a damper on her mood (even when we don’t ask about it). We’ve seen this pattern of failure to complete homework assignments since kindergarten, so unfortunately we don’t believe this issue will go away once she returns to in-person learning.
What should we do?
So many parents whose children are in shared custody experience the frustration and powerlessness you expressed. And children like Ella are caught in the middle, trying to negotiate between inconsistent sets of standards. In finding a solution, you’ll need to do what you can to show her that the adults in her life are working together for her sake.
Reaching common ground with Ella’s mother may be difficult, but we recommend giving it another shot. While your instinct to be upset about Ella’s playing video games during the day is understandable, the situation doesn’t necessarily mean that Ella’s mother is indifferent to Ella’s homework. She might be using this time to connect with Ella between study sessions, for example. Regardless, try not to ask Ella about why her work isn’t getting done at her mom’s, as doing so may inadvertently cause her to feel that she has to pick sides.
Instead, do your best to give Ella’s mother the benefit of the doubt and—as challenging as it may be—try to start another conversation with her for Ella’s sake. You mention in your letter that when you have “confronted” Ella’s mother, she’s said she is too busy to help Ella manage her workload. Rather than approaching Ella’s mother confrontationally, start off by acknowledging that all four of you likely have a lot on your plate and that you all have Ella’s best interests at heart. Beginning the conversation this way—expressing empathy and emphasizing shared goals—will give you a better chance to brainstorm simple systems to put in place in both houses. Try to communicate your observations rather than judgments: Ella has been upset when she has to tackle a lot of schoolwork at once, and you’d love to collaborate on a system to help her feel less overwhelmed.
If you’re not able to agree on what’s expected of Ella, talking with her teacher might help. She can make the expectations for schoolwork absolutely clear without arbitrating among family members. Perhaps you or Ella’s father could reach out to her teacher, explain the situation, and ask that she send a general email to the class with reminders about homework requirements. This message will give both households a shared understanding of what Ella’s schoolwork entails.
If Ella’s mother remains dismissive, you could ask the teacher to pass along recommendations to the four of you for how best to support Ella academically. For example, her teacher might suggest a virtual calendar for Ella to track daily and long-term assignments at both your house and her mother’s. Suggestions from the teacher will be less charged than your own, and Ella’s mother will likely be more amenable to hearing them.
If you still find having an open conversation with Ella’s mother too difficult, consider consulting a therapist. Working with a third party trained in these types of discussions might be the best way to protect Ella from tension between households while you work together to find a solution. This is the most important message you can impart to Ella: that despite different value systems and different households, her parents are working together because their love for her is ultimately both what unites them and, most important, what will sustain her.
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