Homework as Liturgy? A Psychologist’s Reflections

AdminMessages from Family Ministries

What does Liturgy of the Ordinary have to do with homework?  Author Tish Harrison Warren, a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, walks the reader through the routines of everyday life and connects them with a spiritual significance that is part of our higher calling as followers of Christ. We sit, we kneel, we stand, and we sing together. Some raise their hands with joy while others fold theirs in solemnity. The church, through its liturgy, connects the varieties of religious expression of individuals into the fabric of shared worship. The result is a sustained tension between individual impulses and the liturgical commitments of the church gathered.

Psychology has been concerned with the same tension since its inception. As early as Freud, we have tried to figure out how the emotional eccentricities of an individual person intersect with the demands of the larger society. One of my favorite figures, a British psychoanalyst named Winnicott, explained[1] that sound human experience lies smack dab in the middle of this tension between individual desire and societal requirements (like home work!). It is an aim of growing-up to be able to get to and stay in that tension. Think about it. In the baby’s mind, he is center of the universe. “When I am hungry, food appears!” But gradually he must learn that he is one among many, and he must sometimes subject his own desires to the rhythms of things beyond him. He must do this while sustaining a sense of authenticity. This is ritual and spontaneity; both are important. Churches shape their congregants in this way just as parents do their children.

This brings me to a subject boiling in the blood of kids and parents alike: Homework. Why? Because it is at the heart of a child’s learning how to be an authentic individual who is also subject to outside demands. Homework is a child’s ordinary liturgy. This resonates with the neuroscience[2] too. After a long day of keeping herself still at school, biological forces in her body are screaming for spontaneity—running outside, pouring the Legos on the floor, or turning on the iPad. Alas, homework beckons! It is part of her liturgical growth to learn to navigate the tension between ritual and spontaneity, and it is up to her parents to teach it. From a psychologist, here are a few starter tips:

  • Counterbalance daily homework with spontaneity. Make sure you spend a little bit of time each day playing with your child. Don’t just play, though. Follow your child’s lead without injecting corrections, instead verbally celebrating and enjoying his or her (safe) impulses.
  • Verbally and visually forecast the upcoming transition to homework time, triggering your child’s neurological system to start readying itself. “We are having so much fun right now! Get ready, in 15 minutes it will be time to transition to being calm for homework.”
  • Set apart homework time in multi-sensory ways. Alter the sights, sounds, and smells of homework time to help train the nonverbal body to focus in preparation for the ritual. You might consider hitting “play” on a calming homework playlist 10 minutes prior, maybe diffuse a certain scent, or set apart a place in the house specifically devoted to calm focus.
  • Make routines visual by tacking an illustrated after-school schedule to the refrigerator. Include pictures, sequences, and order to help your child monitor the liturgy themselves.

Nathaniel R. Strenger, Psy.D.

[1] For the therapists out there, from a little essay entitled, “The Place Where We Live” in Playing and Reality.

[2] For a great and readable primer, I suggest The Whole Brain Child by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson.

Nathaniel R. Strenger, Psy.D. Is a licensed psychologist in full-time practice at the Pastoral Counseling Center in Dallas. There he also serves as Clinical Advancement Coordinator, providing psychotherapy and assessments with kids, teens, families, adults, and members of the clergy. He received his Doctorate of Psychology from the Fuller Graduate School of Psychology and holds a Masters in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He can be reached at 214.526.4525.

On October 4, 2018, the Pastoral Counseling Center of Dallas will be hosting its first Ology Symposium: A Dialogue Between Psychology and Theology. All are welcome and details can be found at http://pccdallas.org/ology/.