It’s no secret that men and women are different.
Author John Gray wrote an entire guide to understanding the opposite sex, called Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. It was a big hit; a New York Times bestseller found on night stands everywhere.
We don’t think the same, feel the same, eat the same. We don’t look the same, and we certainly don’t communicate the same.
And in my house, we do not help with homework the same. In fact, nothing highlights the differences between my husband and I more than a good old math sheet or a list of spelling words.
A lot of people ask me what it’s like to do homework with five kids. And I always smile serenely and say, “Oh, you know, no big deal.” Because to me, it really isn’t a big deal.
This is my philosophy about homework: teachers teach the stuff in school, and homework is basically a review of that stuff. If my kids come home and open their homework folder and say they can’t do the stuff, then we put it away. I am not qualified to teach the stuff; the math is too new and the handwriting is different. I think they’ve even changed the alphabet since I was a kid.
If my kids whine and complain and ask me for help I giggle and tell them,“I’ve already DONE third grade! Now it’s your turn!”
But even though I’ve done all the grades, there are so many things I don’t know. Why, just this academic year alone, I realized I know absolutely nothing about the winter habits of the red fox or where the nucleus is in a plant cell. Or how to use a Cuisenaire rod.
To me, homework is something to get out of the way; hurry up and finish your homework.
All of our teachers do an exceptional job preparing our kids so they can come home and do their homework. But every once in a while, there is a stumbling block. They don’t remember the words or how to measure the polygon, and when this happens I chirp brightly, “No worries! Pack it up and learn it tomorrow!”
I’m sure I am contributing to the downfall of America with my philosophy—or at the very least the downfall of our family—but so be it. I can live with that.
Joe’s philosophy, on the other hand, is different. To my dear husband, homework is actually a time to learn, to explore, to research.
If Joe doesn’t know the answer to a question during homework time, then by golly, he’s going to find out. IPads are summoned, Google is consulted. Scrap paper is used. What could be accomplished in four minutes stretches to a half hour or more.
I’ll admit it, I have hissed things like hurry up and finish your homework before your father gets home you don’t want him to help you, do you?
I can’t lie. When we learned our second son, Jack had autism at the tender age of two, we had dreams he’d adopt some of Rainman’s more savory qualities. We fantasized about match sticks on the floor and counting cards in Vegas. At the very least we thought he’d be a math whiz.
Now Jack is nine, and sometimes people ask me if he’s good at math. The answer is no. Unequivocally, without qualification: no. A black and white no. Literally, no. He is not good at math.
I cannot understand it. How can a boy remember that the last time he had scrambled eggs with bacon was on August 24th, 2009 at an IHOP in Connecticut, but he can’t remember the answer to six times eight?
And Jack hates homework. We have had enormous tantrums, complete meltdowns, and ballistic fits over things as simple as flashcards. He digs his pencil into the paper with enough force to rip it, or, even worse, he stares blankly down at his hands with a vacant look in his eyes. He kicks the chairs, and inexplicably, tries to bite the walls.
There was one trying evening in particular when Joe was helping Jack with a math sheet. I had been struggling off and on all afternoon to get him to finish it, and after dinner the white paper sat on the kitchen counter, mocking us. Most of the answers were blank and some had a few scribbles next to them.
I don’t know what this kind of math is called, but it required the homework-doer to compute two numbers inside of the parenthesis, and then do another calculation after that. The nightmare looked something like this:
2 * (4 + 6) = ______
oh my word please just add the four and the six before I go crazy and then multiply it by two this really isn’t so hard stop staring at the counter you are never going to finish high school or move out of this house
(I thought it might be good to include the things that were running through my head. You know, so you get the full picture.)
Is this advanced algebra? Or maybe calculus? Really, I don’t know. But to Jack it might as well have been ancient hieroglyphics or instructions about how to build a pyramid.
Joe wasn’t having much luck either.He used a big thick marker to emphasize the parenthesis; he took him through the problems again and again while I hovered nearby, ready to declare game-over.
And all at once, Joe’s face lit up.
“Jack, buddy. Think of it as getting dressed. You have to put your underwear on first, right? The underwear is like the parenthesis. You have to do it first!”
(Insert blank stare here.)
Desperate to reach Jack before he slipped away for good, Joe got up from the counter and started dancing around. “Jack, JACK! What do we put on first, underwear or pants?”
“Uh. Underwear,” Jack answered uncertainly.
“That’s RIGHT! Your underwear! See! See how I put my underwear on BEFORE my pants, just like you have to finish what’s IN the parenthesis first!”
And as six pairs of eyes watched incredulously, Joe unbuckled his jeans and let them drop to the floor. There he stood, in the middle of the kitchen, with his boxer shorts on. (Royal blue with bright red hearts, in case you were wondering.)
Jack’s eyes widened. He covered his mouth and giggled,“Put your PANTS ON!”
Suddenly, the mood was lifted. Jack broke free of autism’s tricky hold for a few minutes, bent over the paper, and finished his homework. And every time he had to add what was in the parenthesis, he smiled a small smile. Once I heard him whisper, “Underwear.”
When the worksheet was packed away and the pants put back on, Joe took all five kids upstairs for baths and showers. I bent over to retrieve a pencil that had rolled under the stool, thinking of a game Joe used to play when Jack was a little over a year old, when he didn’t talk or point or coo or laugh.
When he didn’t recognize us.
We’d sit at dinner and Joe would tap his own head. “Jack! Daddy. I am Daddy. Look at Daddy.” And then he’d go around the table, tapping first Joey’s head, “Look at Joey. Brother Joey,” before my turn.
“Mommy.Jack, this is Mommy. She’s your Mommy! Look at Mommy.”
I hated this game. I hated feeling Joe’s finger tap my head and I hated the way Jack would not so much as look up from his macaroni and I hated how it reminded me that something was wrong with our son.
An occupational therapist once told me a mother’s job is to keep her children close to home—to nurture and cherish—but a father’s job is to show them the world. As she explained, a Mama bird draws her baby chicks back to the nest again and again, but the Dad gently nudges them out—showing them how to dig for worms and look for shelter. How to fly.
Maybe women really are from Venus. After all, this planet was named for the Roman Goddess of Love and Beauty. And Mars is named after the Roman God of War, which of course is exactly what homework with Joe looks like at first glance; a battle, a conflict, a struggle. But a second look is more telling.
Not war, but a father teaching from his heart.
Teaching his toddler boy how to look up from a bowl of macaroni on a clear summer evening and say mommy. And now, seven years later, a father showing his nine-year old how to measure and add and spell.
How to fly over autism’s parenthesis and touch the bright cloudless sky, if only for a moment.