NEW YORK >> Homework? Ban it! Circle time? It’s not for every kindergartner. Forced sharing? How about letting a kid play with a toy until she’s done?
Those are just a few of the ideas that Heather Shumaker advocates as “renegade” in a new book, “It’s OK to Go Up the Slide,” an extension of her first parenting guide, “It’s OK Not to Share.”
Shumaker is the mom of two boys, ages 11 and 8, in Traverse City, Mich. As a youngster, she was a student where her mother taught for 40 years in Columbus, Ohio, the unorthodox School for Young Children. Free, unstructured play was encouraged and teachers did things like providing boxing gloves to encourage children to learn how to navigate rough-and-tumble play on their own terms.
“I went to school there as a 4- and 5-year-old and my mother taught there for 40 years,” said Shumaker, who is 48. “Children who come out of that program are unusually skilled in conflict mediation and coping with their emotions.”
The new book, out this month from TarcherPerigee, a division of Penguin Random House, extends her outlook from very young children she focused on the first time around through the middle school years.
A conversation with Shumaker:
Question: Can you talk about the gap between what we, as adults, know about kids and what we actually DO about kids?
Answer: We know a lot more about brain development and the value of play than we ever have before and yet we’re kind of doing the opposite. Back when I was kid, we didn’t know much about brain development but we trusted kids more, so we were willing to trust their play. If it involved toy weapons, we were willing to go with it.
Now, we know a lot more about the benefits of free play, the benefits of movement and how that affects learning, the benefits of big-body play — running around, bicycling, yelling, wrestling, but I think there’s a culture of fear and kind of a culture of, “our kids are going to fall behind and we have to hurry them up.”
Today, a lot of people are feeling uncomfortable. They know something’s wrong but they don’t know exactly what. For example, parents wonder why their first-grader gets stomachaches, or why they’re always crying and saying they don’t like school when they have to do their homework.
Q: How do parents need to reinvent parenting? You say we have to be willing to tip what we know upside down, become renegade parents.
A: We accept a lot of parenting habits as truth, whether it’s “don’t talk to strangers” or “safety first” or “do your homework.” These are things that we just accept as sacred mantras. These conventions become our habits generation to generation. And yet the more we learn and through some of the research, these are just plain wrong. It’s time for us to question some of these things.
Q: You talk about the importance of parents taking off their “adult lenses.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
A: We’re very good at adult amnesia, forgetting what it’s really like to be a kid. So if a kid doesn’t do what she’s told in the kindergarten circle time, she’s labeled as defiant. You know, they’re not going to fit into society, they’re going to become that loner that causes problems and ends up being in the news.
We really leap to a lot of conclusions, but a kid doesn’t have to do what the group’s doing so long as their actions don’t disrupt the group. Adults sometimes need to let kids do what they do.
Q: You take on a lot of the hot buttons in parenting and education, such as homework, but tell us what you mean by “renegade sharing,” especially in a school setting?
A: A lot of adults will set a timer, say “Five minutes and then it’s Joey’s turn,” or just take a toy out of a child’s hands and say, “You’ve had this long enough, now be nice and share with your friend.”
This makes the kid feel rotten. We’re doing it to encourage generosity and awareness of others and all those good things, but it actually backfires and delays that development of generosity.
What you want is for a kid to share when you’re not looking, because it feels good and they want to internally. That happens when they have some control and when they feel that rush of good feelings.
Tell them you can play with that as long as you want, until you’re done. It protects that right. It works well even with 2-year-olds because it’s simple, it’s fair, it’s easy and the kids get it. Kids who are preverbal or just don’t talk very much can put up their hands, like a stop motion, if they’re still playing with a toy and somebody else wants it.
Now, kids learn really early to say, “She’s not sharing,” in that whiny voice, and they know that means instant gratification and adults will swoop in.
Q: Another one of your topics is the idea of sharing “sad stories” with kids. At what age, to what degree?
A: A lot of story books for children are being sanitized, where the gingerbread boy does not get eaten by a fox anymore. They sit down and they’re friends. This doesn’t seem satisfying to kids. They know something’s not quite right.
Adults are scared of those feelings. They want to spare kids sorrow, all those difficult feelings — fear, anger. But that’s not reality. You can mix them in. Not everything has to be doom and gloom, but if a child is old enough to ask about sad things, she’s old enough to get an honest answer.