More homework for kids with cash

Posted: Oct 06, 2003 12:00 AM

Kids don't get enough homework. That's the latest dismal finding in our search for the answer to the question why our schoolchildren trail children much of the rest of the world. The implications are enormous.

This is not about children in expensive private schools or in school districts with high academic standards. But according to a new study by the Brookings Institution, the Washington think tank, most American students take home less than an hour's worth of homework.

The kids in the study, aged 9, 13 and 17, said their homework assignments only rarely added up to an hour's work. This anecdotal information is supported by data culled from U.S. Department of Education surveys and from researchers at the University of Michigan and at UCLA. Only one in 10 high school students gets as much as two hours a night, and parents, the key to seeing that more is expected of their kids, are often too busy to notice.

High school seniors spend only half as long on math and science homework assignments as their equivalents in France, Italy, Russia and South Africa. Parents who bemoan their overloaded and overworked children might find them overloaded and overworked, but not with homework.

The kids are more likely studying fashion in the catalogues or "economics" and "sociology" at the mall. American students who don't do as well on standardized tests as their international peers nearly always know enough to add up price tags and how to calculate the best way to get the best brand names to decorate their rooms and bodies. Coinciding with the disturbing analysis of homework is the evidence cited in articles and studies describing the buying habits of teenagers. The two subjects are not unrelated.

The latest burgeoning markets for retailers are teenagers and preteens (now known as "tweens"). Teens have $170 billion to spend annually, Michael Wood, vice president of Illinois-based Teen Research Unlimited, tells Time magazine. The 44 million tweens and teens, ages 8 to 18, create a purchasing peak greater than that of the Baby Boomer generation. In 2000, teens spent a stunning $155 billion on clothing, CDs and cosmetics.

These kids with cash are the great-grandchildren of the men and women who lived through the misery and deprivations of the Great Depression. They're enjoying the excesses of affluence and if their clothes are too tight, too short or show too much belly you can be sure it's not because they don't have the money to pay for the extra material.

Since World War II, teens have been the object of retailers who seek to corner a new market by latching onto the latest styles a teenager "must have." The early trends included monogrammed bobby sox, charm bracelets and Hula-Hoops. What's different today is that the "must have" is often a very expensive brand name.

In "Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers," Alissa Quart interviewed young girls whose closets were stuffed with Prada labels. It's not just the rich, either, who are prey to these fashion pressures. Every time Nike introduces a new style, kids from the ghetto line up to be the first to pay hundreds of dollars to be the hippest in the 'hood.

Most parents want to do their part to influence what their tweens and teens buy, but students of the habits of young consumers observe a culture that one critic calls a "filiarchy," a kingdom where children rule. Parents are often so concerned with the social lives of their children that they break budgets to buy clothes with hopes that the duds will make them "fit in," literally.

Divorced couples add to the problem when children play Mom against Dad, often without realizing that that's what the kids are up to. The mom who enforces the homework assignment won't win the spontaneous display of affection as often as the dad who buys the electric car.

Ironically, young people who are forging, for better or ill, their identities, rarely have minds of their own. They're dominated by their peers. What's new is that the peer group dominates parents, too. The "hurried child" finds an ally in the "too busy" parent.

What to do?

One solution might be for parents and children to shop together, as harrowing as this will no doubt be for long-suffering parents. Textbooks and math problems use brand names from Oreo to Nike to help children learn, and parents could use labels for learning, too. Ask your child to figure out how many Prada shoes or Cargo pants could feed a family of four for a week or go into a savings account for college. There's more than one way to expand homework.