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Hoosier pupils get a night off for family time

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Becky Brouwer is delighted with the program at Hamilton Heights Middle School, the one that allows her two children to skip homework.

A one-time voucher excuses students from the homework assignment of their choice as long as they spend a night with their family -- doing anything or even nothing.Brouwer said 10-year-old Molly decided the family should have a candlelight dinner outside on her night.

"After dinner, usually, everyone scatters," Becky Brouwer said. "But this time, everyone sat there and talked and talked. I think it's wonderful."

Parents and educators came up with the idea last year. Students at the school in Arcadia, just north of Indianapolis, have responded, camping out in the living room with mom and dad, watching videos together, going shopping.

"What we really hope is that it happens once, and then parents and students say, 'Hey that's kind of neat, let's do it again,' " said Principal Chris Walton. "It's really a carrot that we're hanging out there."

Lena Lundgren, director of the Center on Work and Family at Boston University, said many of today's families have their lives so scheduled that a program like this could provide a needed break.

"This could actually be a very valuable effort," she said. "It encourages them to spend more time just being a family."

Studies have shown that families still spend considerable time together, Lundgren said, despite longer working hours and greater demands on school kids. But quality isn't keeping up with quantity.

"What we're seeing is that families are spending more and more time doing organized things, doing things that are scheduled," she said. "They're spending very little down time together."

The Hamilton Heights program, she said, has the right idea, creating a somewhat unstructured period for families to simply interact.

But is it really necessary?

Laura Hess, an assistant professor in the child development and family studies department at Purdue University, said an incentive program to get families to interact may sound foreign to many people.

"The problem is that it seems automatic to most people's memories that we would, of course, spend time with our families," she said. "But demographics are changing and people are much busier."

She said school officials are "sensing that some parents may not be as involved."

That's what led Walton and the Hamilton Heights parent-teacher organization to intervene with the Family Fun Night at Home concept.

"A lot of parents hold down two jobs, or we've got students who are involved in a variety of activities, they're doing this, they're going there," Walton said. "I think our society's really in a whirlwind right now, and I think people need to settle down and enjoy their kids."

Georgia Marshall said she and her husband, a pastor who works from home, spend as much time as possible with their six children. She knows not everyone is as fortunate and is glad Hamilton Heights is making an effort.

"I just think it's a great program, but I think it's kind of sad, too," she said. "But if that's what it takes, then why not?"