New research: Forced curriculum is inappropriate for kids under 11

Time magazine has a history of publishing research about homework. If you are still thinking you should make your kids do homework, here are some of my favorite articles for you to read:

Kids receive three times the recommended homework load

Six ways to end the tyranny of homework

Too much homework

To most of you, this is preaching to the choir, though. If you are homeschooling, you are not putting your kids through eight hours of school and three hours of homework.

But, also, you are probably not giving your preschooler any “assignments” because if you’ve read this blog for even a short while you know there is absolutely no research to say toddlers should learn math or reading.

But I learned something new from the most recent Time magazine research roundup: Why Parents Should Not Make Kids Do Homework. One of the reasons homework is so bad for kids is it creates conflict between the parent and child. This is maybe a no-brainer for some people, but I’ve never heard anyone say family harmony is more important than homework.

This is a huge vote in favor of self-directed learning, because the only learning where there is no conflict is when kids choose what to learn themselves. But I was really struck by the conclusion that kids should not do homework until they can take responsibility for it themselves.

For a homeschooling family, this means kids should not do forced curricula before age 11. We can conclude form the research that the conflict over learning infiltrates family life whether it’s homework or homeschooling. And an eleven year old can take responsibility for learning whether the kid is doing homework or homeschooling.

In my own family, we did not attempt any math or reading instruction until my oldest son was eleven. He asked to learn math and science. And at 13 he asked to start preparing to go to a “good” college. (We are still exploring what that means to him, though we are preparing as well.)

We have no conflict at all in our house over homework. My son decides his pace, and he decides when he wants to have a break. For example, our family doesn’t do weekends/weekdays because my husband and I are self-employed and my youngest son practices music every day. But my older son built into his schedule that he doesn’t do any studying or music practice on Saturdays.

So the research is starting to line up in a very cohesive way: We know that kids do not need to start learning math until sixth grade. Kids will teach themselves to read before sixth grade. And now we discover that kids will take responsibility for homework if you wait until about age 11.

We also know that if you let kids under 11 decide what to do with their time, they will probably choose to be on the computer. And kids who spend a lot of time playing video games do better in adult life.

So now homeschoolers have even more cause to relax—you don’t have to make the kids “do” anything until they are pre-teens, and even then, you are leveraging their growing sense of responsibility.

Some days I feel like a crazy radical writing this blog. Other days I feel like a genius. This summary of the latest research and the conclusions we can take comfort in feels like a pat on my back, which we homeschool parents need since no one else is doing it for us.

21 replies
  1. Nichole
    Nichole says:

    My parents and I fought constantly about homework. I used to avoid them when they got home from work so that we wouldn’t have to fight about it. I learned to go to my room and play quietly; in fear of the stern call from upstairs. Homework did that. School did that. My parents are incredibly loving people, and they hated the fight as much as I did. Homework stole family time from us, and I hate it for that most of all.

  2. Jana
    Jana says:

    Looking back, it was just so hard to go with this research of “no structured curriculum before 11.” I just couldn’t handle it. All my adult siblings were teachers and they had kids close in age to mine. They’d ask my kids to spell words and such at family gatherings. People really don’t know what to talk to kids about other than school. I felt very judged even though I know my family loved me. My dad was a school principal for 25 plus years and he supported me homeschooling my kids but it was an unspoken thing that unschooling was not okay. So I’m proud of myself for homeschooling in an extended family of 5 public school educators. But I was not confident enough to unschool and of course I didn’t have you back then to be my role model :) Keep doing what you are doing. You will never know how far reaching your influence is. I am thankful for the homeschool moms who propped me up on the hard days.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Jana, you really opened my eyes when you wrote “people didn’t know what to talk to my kids about besides school.”

      We have this problem all the time, but I am thinking to myself, why do I make this my problem? Or my kids’ problem? Why don’t I think about it as a limitation other people have when relating to kids? That’s what it is. I do not need to internalize other peoples’ problems as my own. I need to repeat this to myself and my kids every time someone (mostly inadvertently) quizzes my kids on what they know.


      • RB
        RB says:

        I echo Penelope’s response on “people didn’t know what to talk to my kids about except school.” Super insightful.

        I work with teenagers and one of the challenging parts is knowing what questions to ask to make meaningful conversation. I think most people like to talk about what is going on in their world, but the catch is we have to ask questions that ask about what is really going on in their world, not what we assume is, or what we think should be happening. This is a big blind spot for many people. Many days myself included.

        One thing I do constantly is play 20 questions with my teenagers to get clues into their lives. They don’t know I’m playing 20 questions though.

      • Rachel
        Rachel says:

        I think it is crazy rude for others to think it is ok to quiz kids. Would they do that to an adult. Someone needs to come up with a brief pithy response to that.

  3. Jill
    Jill says:

    I agree with no homework even though I am not a home schooler. But I do think about Obama who I have heard his mom did 5am homework with him every day. That sort of paid off, right?
    Also, Penelope do you limit or have not TV time? I am dying to get rid of the tv. My husband likes to have access to the sports so we have all the channels to do that. It means the kids end up watching a lot it tv (not just sports). I try not to have too many rules at home but I end up with rules around tv. Any suggestions here with respect to tv would be so helpful, please?!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      We don’t have a TV in our house. But we all know how to use the computer as a TV. So I think what you are saying is you don’t like the kids passively watching vs playing video games, or creating something on the computer/Internet which is more active than TV watching (or YouTube watching, which is what my kids prefer).

      Something to think about: why is it okay for your husband to sit back and just stare at the screen for his favorite shows, but it’s not okay for your kids? Your husband is, presumably, a high-functioning, self-directed person, so your kids can be high-functioning and self-directed and watch Vines for hours at a time.

      Why my kids watch YouTube in large chunks of time, I remind myself that part of being a self-directed person is knowing when to take a break. TV is a break; it’s consuming media instead of creating media.

      I’ve watched Teen Titans (Cartoon Network) and Game Theory (YouTube) with my kids. Both are excellent: thoughtful, innovative, funny, surprising. The more time I take to watch the stuff my kids watch, the more I understand why they like it, and then watching them watch doesn’t feel so bad.


      • Lucy Chen
        Lucy Chen says:

        We don’t have a TV, either. I think watching programs, Youtube, Netflix, etc. on a computer, or iPads, are different than TV. We actively choose what we watch. I think that makes a big difference.

        • Bostonian
          Bostonian says:

          Also, there’s not a parade of crappy sparkly plastic toys every seven minutes. The lack of “I WANT THAT!” with Netflix makes a big difference to this dad.

        • Marilia
          Marilia says:

          We don’t have a tv either, and though I also like to think we choose what we watch on the computer, I also realize, many times we just follow what’s offered in the pages we access. My 8-year old can watch hours of youtubers playing minecraft and not playing the game herself. This is way less romantic than believing we choose it all.

          Penelope, I saw you refering to kids producing the media they like, but what if they dont want to produce and just watch? This stresses me…

  4. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I thought the way homework is assigned today had changed a lot since I was a kid until I read the linked article. The last high school grade I finished was 10th, supposedly a homework peak, and I don’t think I brought a book home more than once or twice. But the average given in the article is only 54 minutes a night. I rarely brought books home because I did all the homework at school – the math in English class, etc. It’s not hard to find 54 minutes to pencil-whip some busywork during the day.

    Age 11 is a good age, from my perspective – that is, looking at my son. His sense of ambition and responsibility is growing by leaps and bounds. I think that six years of not making him do anything much besides follow through on his commitments and be kind has helped him understand what he wants to do, and want to do more.

    I’m happy we will be proceeding in line with the research; it looks like age 11 is the age my son will start to have homework, because he’s planning to go back to school in the fall. Letters are mailed, decisions are made. Next year I will not be homeschooling anybody.

    Yeah, that makes me a bit sad. But it’s not like I won’t be parenting anybody. My little girl and my big boy will still need a lot of my time and nurture. And, like every decision we make, I don’t imagine it’s the last word. My girl might need a break or change of course from school, my boy might find it’s still not for him after all, and I’m here for them. I just hope I get to clean the house before they come back.

    The boy’s decision was difficult, as major life decisions based on incomplete information tend to be, and it ended up having a lot to do with music. Private schools hereabouts all require sports team participation, typically about two hours a day all year. This leaves very little time for instrumental practice. My son is not a sporting lad; he’ll play sometimes, but is not at heart terribly interested. Music is something he’ll find extra time for every day; these days, it’s about four hours a day, all told. The two things he loves most are music and science. I know the only non-science books he reads these days are for his book club.

    Our country’s oldest public school, where he’s headed this fall, has three string orchestras that practice three hours a week during school hours – which end at 2:15. That gives him much more time for practice and musical advancement than a school which regularly keeps kids until 5:30 running about on the fields. The rest of the kids in his science workgroup are going there with him, kids in his conservatory orchestra are already there, and he’ll see kids he hasn’t seen for years. I expect it will deepen his relationship with his peers, his city, and his community.

    Yeah, there’s going to be a lot of homework, maybe too much; they say it’s about 3 hours a night (though one girl I know gets it done in half the time). But I figure most other kids have been dealing with too much homework for years when it wasn’t doing them any good and they’re completely exhausted from it. My son is ready for it. He regularly puts in twelve-hour days homeschooling. Today he’s done math, handwriting, violin, viola, music theory, piano, history, Spanish, and he’s at book club now. I think he can deal with Latin.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:


      Congrats to your boy on getting into the school of his choice. It’s a little bittersweet that you won’t be homeschooling anymore, but I look forward to hearing about your son’s adjustment to traditional schooling, reconnecting with old friends, and more involvement with the community.

      My daughter at 9 is a little younger than the research, but she has become more traditional in what she wants to learn, study, and work on. This has made me look to the community for teachers to work with her and help her come up with more specific learning goals, which makes me a little nervous since I am so loosey-goosey-unschooling with everything. She is also musical and science minded, much like your boy, and is a very determined little human who *knows* already that she will be an engineer.

      I know that his school is one of the feeders to many good, quality universities. I wish him and your family all the best and look forward to updates from you.

  5. Dg
    Dg says:

    My favorite part of homeschooling is child led curricula. I limit TV to one hour games to 90 min per day Bc I don’t consider them beneficial more for unwinding

  6. JDVT
    JDVT says:

    No forced curricula under 11? Glad to know I screwed that up, too!! Ha, my poor kids will be lucky if they figure out self-directed learning before they are adults…

    In truth, I see a big difference in my 12 year old boy’s learning this year; he is engaging with academics on a different level, taking the knowledge deeper into himself, making connections in new ways. Based on these observations I now feel more able to let go the reins of curricula…

    Are you sure it’s not “no forced curricula after age 11”?

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      JDVT, I’m just not the judgy type when it comes to how people educate their children. For us, a self-directed curriculum until age 11 was absolutely the right choice, and I do believe in the idea of letting children find out for themselves what most inspires them. Then, when they are 11 or 12 and their superpowers kick in (honestly, that’s what it seems like to me), they will be fresh and ready to focus on their interests in a more academic fashion or setting. One of the difficult phenomena my son has been able to observe is kids his age who are utterly exhausted and cynical about learning and homework, and I think this can be caused all too easily by forced curricula and schooling, and is very difficult to remedy.

      That said, one factor I believe is absolutely fundamental to homeschooling is parent enthusiasm. Homeschooling has to work for both of you. You cannot adequately deliver a curriculum whose importance seems negligible to you, and you cannot unschool effectively if it causes you to be plagued with anxiety. A huge part of what we have to share with our children is our own enthusiasm. Don’t discount it, look for it and rely on it.

      • JDVT
        JDVT says:

        Thank you for this.

        Truly, sharing the enthusiasm and the deep family connections far out weigh the how of homeschooling.

        Best of luck with your boy’s new adventure. You are right, it may not be a good fit and you will be there to help choose something else to try. That was how we started our path to homeschooling.

  7. Susan P
    Susan P says:

    This makes me think of the TJED method of homeschooling. From what I’ve read it goes from basically unschooling in the younger years to child-lead project based learning to “scholar phase” when the kids get older.

    I have a question for everyone who is homeschooling: would you send your kids to a “Democratic school” if there were one in your area? They seem to be a lot like unschooling except with a larger group and with more resources. There is one opening up in my area. I often get frustrated with not being able to help my kids when they ask for help with their projects (age 8 & 6 with two younger ones needing my time too) and wonder if the new school would be better.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      Hi, Susan. Living in Boston, we’re near one of the original democratic schools, Sudbury Valley. I know people who have had kids there, and did some research into it. I considered it, but decided it would not be best for my son, mostly because of the original reasons he left school in First Grade. Having been bullied extensively for a year and a half, he was very concerned about new environments (he would ask me if there would be bullies there _every_single_time_), and full-day school away from home just wasn’t going to be the best move for him at that point. Once home, he became intensely interested in things he wouldn’t be able to study at a place like Sudbury Valley, and the closeness he’s had with his family over the past five years has been wonderful for all of us.

      One of the questions I’d be likely to ask of a new democratic school is their policy on electronic devices, and how it plays out in the daily life of students. Some folks I know say that the advent of ipads and iphones had a great impact on student activities at Sudbury Valley. Some schools have a completely up to the kid policy and others have some sorts of limitations. I continue to be impressed by nature-based education for youngsters, and leaving them alone all day in the basement with their ipads seems pretty much the opposite to me.

  8. Caro
    Caro says:

    I don’t have anything to contribute but thanks to everyone for the really useful comments and of course Penelope for sparking the discussion. My babe only turned 1 but I look forward to unschooling him.

  9. Carole
    Carole says:

    Do you have posts on how your boys pick what to study and map their days/schedules for themselves? I have 12 and 14 year old boys who I need to do this with but am not sure how.

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