When Heather Shumaker was a preschooler and kindergartner growing up in Columbus, Ohio, she played all day. She built things on the playground—with real bricks. The school also had boxing gloves for when she felt like throwing some punches. Oh, and another way her early education looked different from the norm today: She didn’t have any homework until middle school.
Don’t get her started on homework.
Homework for young kids is just one of many too-common practices that fly in the face of healthy child development, says Shumaker, author of It’s Okay to Go UP the Slide: Renegade Rules for Raising Confident and Creative Kids and a mom of boys ages 8 and 11. It’s also getting more prevalent at younger and younger ages. One boy she knows gets homework not only from his teacher but also from his extended-day program. And his Sunday School.
At age 6.
Meanwhile, the research on the academic benefits of homework affirms that it’s great—for high-schoolers. In middle school, maybe. For elementary-age kids and younger? There’s no evidence it helps (and plenty that it hurts), plenty of child-development experts say. After a day in class, our kids need to shift gears for other types of social-emotional and physical learning through play, extracurriculars, and stress-free family time.
“Homework is intended to reinforce school learning, but it can do just the opposite by making kids resent it and turn against school,” Shumaker told me.
It’s a pattern she sees over and over: We ignore what our hearts are telling us and follow what she calls “a sacred litany of parenting wisdom”—even when it’s been overturned by research and isn’t in our kids’ best interests developmentally.
“We have ‘adult amnesia,’” Shumaker says. “We forget our own childhood and the things we did.”
My favorite line in her book:
“The gap between what we know about kids and what we do about kids is ever widening.”
“I know in my heart that it’s wrong for an 8-year-old to squirm at the kitchen table over homework for hours when he needs a hug or to play or to sleep,” Shumaker told me. And when parents do homework for their tired kids or rip out workbook pages so there are fewer problems, she adds, these workarounds show that they too know something’s not right.
“Trust your gut. Our gut is smarter than we think,” she says.
Some other areas where Shumaker says it’s not only OK but healthy to buck conventional wisdom:
Books don’t have to have happy endings.
We assume: that in our often-scary world, it’s helpful to shield kids from things that are sad or upsetting. Some of us, for the best of intentions, rewrite endings. And increasingly, the books themselves feature sanitized endings. The fox no longer eats Gingerbread Man or Chicken Little. By the last page, they’re hanging out together. In one version of The Three Billy Goats Gruff, the troll changes into…a flower.
Why that doesn’t work: Though it’s natural to want our kids to be happy, nobody can be happy all the time, Shumaker says. “As humans, we feel a range of emotions every day.” Books and stories are important tools that help children cope with difficulty. When we delete the “bad” parts, we deny kids a safe way to experience fear, sadness, and jealousy.
Better: “Let’s expose them to stories that resonate with a full range of feelings,” she says, “not just happily ever after. Kids know it’s fake.” Idyllic tales where everyone is a friend have this added disadvantage: They’re not usually stories that grip the mind and heart, she says—qualities kids need most from books.
Look for classic fairy tales and folk tales, she suggests. They’re rich with sad, scary stories that have riveted children for generations. Talk about the emotions in them: “Some kids think this story is scary. It’s one of my favorites, but we can always stop if you don’t like it.”
Benefit: Kids get the full takeaway from good books: wonder, empathy, and relief. We’re also more likely to grow an eager reader when their books are engrossing and satisfying.
Say yes to princess power!
We assume: that too much pink is an unhealthy obsession. “A Great Princess Debate is raging in this country,” Shumaker says, over whether our kids are being imprisoned in a tower of stereotypes: Girls are helpless, looks are everything, buy-buy-buy. So maybe, we think, we should steer them away from Princess Play.
Why that doesn’t work: “We lose sight of the fact that it’s a stage—from about 3 to 9,” Shumaker says. It coincides with when kids are doing a lot of work on forming gender identity, what it means to be a girl or a boy. “And one way they do that is by being extreme, before they find balance,” she says. “Princesses are the girl equivalent of superheroes.”
“Girls can still be strong and play princess,” Shumaker says. Boys often like this kind of play too, she points out, and for similar reasons. They can be the center of attention, feel magical, give commands. “It’s almost as good as being Mom,” Shumaker says with a laugh.
Better: Instead of taking away a child’s interests, add balance, like outside play. Introduce other strong characters (Wonder Woman, the Star Wars princesses, book characters). If you feel like Princess Power is getting out of hand in your house, you can always limit how many toys and accessories you buy or how often certain movies get watched. Above all, she recommends letting this kind of play run its course—it’s only a phase.
Benefit: Kids get the sense of power they’re seeking—to be in charge, to explore gender, to dream and explore—in ways they choose and that feel good for them. Oh, and they have fun.
It’s ok to talk to strangers.
We assume: Stranger danger. A Mayo Clinic study that found three of every four parents are afraid their child will be abducted.
Why that doesn’t work: We’re focusing on the wrong danger. Yes, there are scary people out there. But it’s more likely to be someone a child knows: a neighbor, a family member, a teacher, a coach, their parish priest—not a stranger. Stats show it’s more likely your TV set will fall on your child’s head than a stranger will abduct him or her, Shumaker says.
By focusing on strangers, we make them fearful of everyone while leaving them less prepared to recognize and deal with the real threats. “The reality is strangers are most likely to be our kids’ helpers,” Shumaker says.
Better: Give your child tools, not fear, she says. We’re better off teaching kids to pay attention to their own instincts. If something doesn’t seem right, listen to that inner voice. They should also learn how to speak up when they don’t like something, rather than just “being nice.”
Practice how to identify the helpers (police officers, store clerks, a mom or dad with kids). Move on to modeling street smarts, like how to be observant and aware of your surroundings. Harder but just as key: Let them take graduated small trips away from you‚ first to the corner, then around the block, and eventually solo on the local bus.
Benefit: Kids grow up less fearful, more confident and competent. They learn the world is mostly a good, not frightening, place, Shumaker says. And they learn how to recognize real dangers and what to do when they sense them near.
“Renegade” or reasonable?
Even when our minds (and guts) know that some contrarian ideas make sense, it can be hard to challenge the conventional wisdom.
“It’s not comfortable to buck the system,” Shumaker told me. “We tend to think, ‘If everybody’s doing it, it must be right.’”
But ultimately, she says, this is about our kids’ best interests: Doing what they need developmentally. Reducing their stress. Helping them grow into happy, well-adjusted people. (And let’s not underestimate how having no more homework tears lifts everybody’s stress.)
“You may not think of yourself as an advocate,” she says, “but when it comes to supporting our kids, we all need to be willing to go UP the slide.”