Heather Shumaker’s new book It’s Okay to Go Up the Slide: Renegade Rules for Raising Confident and Creative Kids covers topics ranging from whether or not you should force your child to kiss Grandma, to opting out of homework, to resisting the urge to become the Activities Director of your family’s household. They all share a common message, however: by empowering our kids to make their own decisions, guide their own play, advocate for themselves against bullies and teasing, and embrace risk as a part of growing up and learning boundaries, they will ultimately become stronger and more sure of themselves. Shumaker’s flexible, nonjudgmental approach makes this parenting book extremely appealing at a time when playgrounds are sanitized to the point of boring kids, piles of homework in classrooms leave little time for young minds to explore, and a world in turmoil can make parents feel overwhelmed yet unsure of how much of this information to share with children. After the jump, we interviewed the author, who also wrote the book It’s OK Not to Share, about her philosophies, influences, and how you can become a renegade parent.

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With the help of feasible techniques, words to use (as well as words to avoid), and supportive data, Shumaker outlines why limiting tech time, allowing your child to assess and experience healthy risk, and keeping kindergarten a stress-free and more playful zone will all help your child’s confidence level, flexibility, and, in the long-term, their ability to handle setbacks and challenges. It’s Okay to Go Up the Slide takes into careful consideration the thoughts of kids with regard to confusing and often contradictory situations. For example, we tell kids not to talk to strangers, but then many of us employ babysitters (who are essentially strangers to our children) to watch them. We allow kids to play violent games on their iPads, but we don’t allow them to read books that deal with sensitive issues or discuss current events with them.

Shumaker was raised by a renegade parent and attended an unconventional preschool and elementary school, so she knows the benefits of this technique first-hand and has applied it as a parent. Yet she realizes that each child and family are different, and one of the most refreshing aspects of Shumaker’s book is that she understands that the book isn’t one-size-fits-all for parents or kids, writing, “It’s OK if you love one chapter and can’t stand the next.” With her thought-provoking, measured style, we imagine readers will find more ideas that they identify with or that they can aspire to than not. We all want to raise kids who are self-aware and self-assured and who are ready and willing to take on age-appropriate challenges. Shumaker’s book provides the tools to do so at any age.

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Q & A with Heather Shumaker

Inhabitots: I’m always intrigued by how, for adults, we generally recognize (and accept) differences, abilities for learning things at varied paces, preferences for working in groups or alone, or aptitude for doing things in a different way. Why is this concept of “one size not fitting all” so hard to uphold for younger kids, especially in education?

Shumaker: As far as groups go, if a child doesn’t want to do what the group is doing it seems like disobedience, and as adults we fear losing control. We view it as a threat or a personal insult. We need to fixate less on control and more on setting reasonable limits, respecting the child and respecting the group. “You don’t have dance to the worm song, but you can’t get in the way of the other kids. Move over here.”

Inhabitots: I loved your tech time approach with your sons and how you gave Myles the power to set the timer and turn off the video game himself. What are some other ways/scenarios that this approach might help in alleviating power struggles?

Shumaker: Involving the child in solving conflicts is always wonderful. Getting out of a power struggle starts with acknowledging the feelings going on. “You’re mad at me. You want (fill in the blank).” Once you get to the feelings and get those tough feelings aired, you can move on to solutions, and the most successful ones often involve giving the child some power and control. My first book, It’s OK Not to Share, dives into many of these ways of coping with big, big feelings and conflict mediation. It works between kids and between kids and adults.

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Inhabitots: Many of your suggestions regarding homework and options for opting out are helpful and reasonable. What can you do if these approaches don’t work, especially if your child is in a school where the teachers or administration are very firm on these homework or planner signing expectations?

Shumaker: Families who strike up the conversation with teachers generally find their child’s homework load reduced, or at least come up with some mostly agreeable compromise. But there are always teachers who won’t budge. The book is full of ideas of what to do next. One option is to go forward with opting out and just agreeing to disagree. Sometimes this means (brace yourself) seeing a bad mark on your first-grader’s report card. These kids still move on to second grade. If it’s really bad (the teacher reacts by penalizing your child by missing recess), you have to make some tough decisions. Remember you are always in charge. You can request a change of teachers, or change schools.

Inhabitots: Sometimes my kids will be fearful of new activities or experiences. I don’t sign them up for tons of activities, but occasionally I do, and they almost always end up loving the activity and becoming active participants despite their initial hesitation. How do we support kids when we feel like they might be making a decision they will later regret? How do we encourage them to try new things when they are reticent?

Shumaker: One of our jobs as parents is to continually expose our kids to new things – whether it’s a trip or a music class. They might not want to go. They might draw back. As long as you are giving your children plenty of time to play, follow their own ideas and be themselves, it’s fine to choose some activities that you’re going to introduce them to. Acknowledge their feelings and give them support. “I know you’re feeling scared about day camp, but I know they do fun things there and the counselors will take good care of you.” Moral support does wonders. If they really hate it, you can always stop. Decide which decisions are theirs, and which are yours to make.

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Inhabitots: In “Mean Words Matter,” you offer great tips for addressing bullying, tattling, and unkind remarks in general. What do we do when it’s our child on the receiving end of these words, particularly at school or another place when we aren’t around to translate or facilitate the discussion? How do we empower them to stand up for themselves without interfering?

Shumaker: Practice, practice, practice. It helps to start young, but you can start at any age. These skills are hard and take courage, but get easier with experience. When kids see the amazing results that happen when they set limits on actions (or words) they don’t like, it gives them power for the next time. How to practice? Let them play with other kids. It doesn’t matter if the kids are best of friends. Even best friends get into conflicts. If your child is rubbing shoulders with other kids she can gain conflict skills. You aren’t always going to be there. You can’t always ‘save’ them.  But know you are teaching and modeling skills they can use when they’re ready.

Inhabitots: I thought your approach to talking about scary events in the world was very logical and compassionate. As my son worries a lot and can obsess over topics that trouble him, sometimes I haven’t said anything in the past about an incident that I hoped he wouldn’t learn about and then his peers have informed him of it — often with misinformation! For children who do tend to become very concerned with worrying subjects, what do you think is the best approach for informing them of news disasters?

Shumaker: Ah, yes. Peer misinformation. Kids pick up so much from classmates and friends. Go ahead and check in with your son from time to time. “Anything you’ve been hearing that worries you?” Ask him what he knows about it to get a starting point. Then give age-appropriate answers. Children pick up more than we think they do, and a child who’s old enough to ask is old enough to get an honest answer.

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Inhabitots: Can you recommend any of your go-to resources when it comes to finding books for your kids that tell a wide range of perspectives and more complete histories surrounding events?

Shumaker: My go-to source is a good children’s librarian. These are wonderful people who know so much about children’s books.

Inhabitots: Your mom sounds like an amazingly astute, thoughtful, and interesting parent. When did you become aware that her parenting style was different than what is/was the more typical authoritarian style? What were her influences?

Schumaker: She started out like many of us, good-hearted, full of love, and rather clueless. Luckily she practiced on my older brother! She learned her parenting skills by following mentors at the School for Young Children in Columbus, Ohio. This is the preschool I attended and where she began teaching. Eventually she taught there forty years and won the Ohio Teacher of the Year award. It all came from absorbing knowledge of child development and respectful parenting from the preschool’s teachers, which my books are based on. I only became aware that her style was different in high school when my other friends complained about their parents and I had nothing to say. I had nothing to complain of.

I wrote the book for parents like my mother in mind. Good-hearted, intelligent, full of love, but not sure what to do with headstrong, active, sometimes difficult-to-get-on with kids with big emotions.

+ It’s OK to Go Up the Slide: Renegade Rules for Raising Confident and Creative Kids