The lost book: Homework and responsibility

Mar 13, 2008 at 3:00 a.m. ET

Alfs bedtime is 9:15 p.m. At 9:10 p.m. last Thursday night, Alfs was all ready for bed when he announced that he needed to read two pages in his literature anthology in spite of having told me earlier that he had finished all his homework. And he couldn't find the book.

We spent 35 minutes looking for that darn book, trying to do so quietly since Woody and Sunshine were already asleep, and we never did find it. It was so frustrating, for all of us. Finally, we sent Alfs off to bed, with something of a plan for him to read the pages at school in a spare book. It wasn't an ideal solution, but it was what we could come up with. We had a brief exchange about responsibility.I wondered how far I should be going for Alfs. Certainly it's his responsibility to finish his homework, and that includes keeping track of his book and telling me that he does have homework left. The book shouldn't have been "lost" in the first place, and the issue should have been addressed earlier. But it was also possible that one of us moved the book inadvertently, and if that's the case, helping look for the book is not only the nice thing to do, but also the right thing to do. It's also possible that he really did just forget about the reading. Goodness knows I've forgotten a thing or two in my time.Did we do the right thing by tearing apart the house at that late hour? Should my response have been different? Certainly we could have launched a more organized and calm search had it been initiated even an hour earlier. Did we communicate the right message about responsibility? What is the bigger issue? That he misplaced the book? That he misled us about the homework being done? That he waited until so late to let us know? Generally speaking, helping look for a book is harmless. It was the situation in which we looked for it that had me questioning myself and my response. I don't want to coddle the children through school. I don't do their homework for them. If they ask for help, I don't give them the answer, but I do ask a leading question or nudge in the right direction.As with so many elements of parenting, it's striking that balance. I'm thinking about so many things about parenting as balance beam walking: helping, but not too much; guiding, but not pushing; loving, but not smothering; leading, but not becoming (unreasonably) dictatorial; being there, but not being too there.The next morning, 20 minutes before the absurdly early bus, I asked Alfs again where he had last seen the book. He said, "On the table, before Dad and Woody set up Risk." I suggested he go look at the couch next to the table again. Two minutes later he came back. With the book. Seems it was tucked between the cushions. He assured me he looked there. But no matter. For now, at least, the matter was resolved and Alfs sat down to read his two pages.Later that afternoon, we had another conversation about homework, responsibility and truthfulness. I'm sure it won't be the last.Read more: