As a kid, I had a few after school rituals: throw off my starchy jumper for soft, breathable cotton shorts as soon as I walked off the bus; beg my mom for an ICEE as she passed every gas station; and neatly pile all of my papers and books on the kitchen table before I sat down for hours of math and spelling and reading.
My mom would start dinner prep, defrosting the chicken or chopping broccoli, always nearby to spell out a word or check my answers. Technically, the kitchen table was in a separate room from the oven, sink, and stove, but the only divider was an open countertop. Mom would listen to me recite state capitals over the sound of sizzling onions, and keep two timers ready—one for the bread, the other for my math quizzes. Near 6 p.m., mom would have my sister and me clear our homework and set out plates and silverware; the kitchen table belonged to food once again.
But is the kitchen table—in the midst of the smells and sounds and activity of cooking—really the best place for kids to focus? We asked Duke University social psychologist Dr. Harris Cooper, one of the nation's leading homework researchers, for advice.
“The bottom line is that the notion of ‘no, don’t ever do this' is too cut and dried,” Dr. Cooper says. “It’s more a case of the developmental age of the child, how much help they’re going to need, and the parents’ abilities to act as monitors and models.”
The kitchen table can be a wonderful place for children to complete their assignments, Cooper says, primarily because parents are there to witness frustration. When a parent sees their child struggling, they can offer help right away.
In addition, it can be an opportunity for parents to model behavior. They can join their child at the table to balance the checkbook or write an email, showing how math and spelling apply to everyday tasks. Our own Amanda Hesser likes her two kids Addison and Walker to do homework at the kitchen table for this very reason:
"I’m pro-homework at the table,” Hesser says. “It allows us to cook and do stuff while our kids do their homework. So there’s a practical advantage, but also it’s a way of spending time with them."
The issue is that parents need to know their child’s own abilities and attention span, Dr. Cooper says. You might want to keep an eye on your kids while cooking, but the smell and noise of can distract students, especially younger children.
“The most important part of doing homework at the kitchen table is parents answering the question, will your child be distracted? If mom or dad is cooking and making lots of noise with pots and pans, or the television is on in the background, it’s not a good thing,” Cooper says. “Homework takes a lot of focus, which could disrupt the family’s routines.”
For me, my increasing piles of homework (and reluctance to move it for meals) pushed my mom to push me into my room. At first I missed how easy it was to ask for help, or grab a study snack. But as I got older, I appreciated being far away from the smells and sounds of the kitchen—my physics problem sets and analysis of the mythic individual in American literature demanded silence—and mom was more than happy to lend me one of her timers for quizzes.
Do you think the kitchen table should be just for eating? Share your thoughts in the comments below!