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Relationships • Parenting

What You Might Want to Tell Your Child About Homework

One of the inevitable duties of parenthood is having to induct our beloved child into the reality – and horrors – of existence. Starting with homework.

It’s been a difficult evening; your ten year old was screaming that she wasn’t going to do maths and your gentle encouragement didn’t do any good. She kept asking ‘why do I have to do it?’ and now, as you say good night, you try to give her a proper answer.

I know you’re rather not do it, and it’s true – to be honest – that you’ll probably never need to work out 6,397 divided by 82. You’ll just use your phone (or maybe in thirty years time the answer will already have been downloaded directly into your brain). But sadly you’re not really being asked to do this because it’s useful. You’re being asked in order to introduce you nicely to the idea that you’ll have to do so many things you don’t want to do in order to survive.

Your child has drifted off to sleep but you keep talking, very quietly

The truth is, it will be like this again and again. You’ll have to do so much you don’t want to do to get through this painful life. One day, many years from now, it will be three pm on a Tuesday afternoon and it’ll be lovely outside but you’ll have to be analysing trends in electricity pricing in Belgium or chasing up a client who is slow on deciding if they want to invest in a multi-story car park in Croydon (where you’ve never yet been). It won’t interest you in the least, but you’ll have to do it – because you’ll have bills to pay and a career to uphold. You think homework will end when you finish school, but here’s the unbearable truth we adults can’t bring ourselves to tell you: having to do things you don’t want to do goes on throughout your life, it is – in many ways – what life is.  

When you are in a relationship, you’ll need to do things your partner wants, even though they’ll have no appeal whatsoever for you. You’ll have to visit their awful family. You’ll need to think of interesting things to say about a film you didn’t enjoy; you’ll have to make breezy conversation with their aunt who rather frightens you, and with their brother, who you find entirely dull.

The agony will go on across a range of areas. Certain people will judge you in ways that are manifestly unfair – and you won’t be able to do anything about it. Enemies will hate you for no reason. If you complain, you will be called thin-skinned; if you don’t complain they’ll take your silence as an admission of guilt.

You’ll keep on thinking for a while that you can escape – that there will come a time when the suffering and incompleteness will come to an end. Perhaps after university, or after you make some money, or once you’re married, or after you get divorced, or once the children have left home. You’ll dream of a place and time without anxiety, suffering and feelings of loss and alarm.

But you will never get there. All the while, you’ll need to keep making enormous efforts and the fun times will get ever fewer and further between. You’ll have to watch what you eat, even when you’re longing to have another bit of carrot cake. You’ll find that the most delicious things are fattening – and that at points in your life, you’ll crave food as the only pleasure that you’re allowed.

In  your leisure time, you’ll have to make yourself do stretching exercises because your limbs will start to stiffen. One day, you’ll notice yourself slowly but perceptibly aging. Your skin will stiffen. Small lines will appear all around your eyes. The bad photo of you from ten years back will exceed this year’s most flattering shot.

There’ll come a time when you’ll have to force yourself to make an appointment to see the radiologist; you’ll have to accept the dreadful verdict (which I can’t bear even to imagine) though it will obviously be insanely idiotic that your life, that your dazzling inner existence, that your sheer loveliness and beauty and your delight in seeing the sky and the trees will all come to an end in this senseless, strange, amazing and exhilarating world.

Your life will in certain ways be a long sequence of different kinds of homework; and – horribly – maths is the easiest version: a beginners guide, almost a pleasure.

Poor darling. I love you more than I can say.  

You turn the light right down and move softly out of the room and head back to the kitchen where your partner is rather crossly wondering why you’ve been taking so long and keeping your child up too late when there’s school in the morning – and where your laptop and the spreadsheets are waiting for you, open on the table.

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