Simple Hellos

Do the words we say leave room for other emotions?

Do the words we say leave room for other emotions?

When I talk about raising children, people often ask me about manners, particularly greetings. As we think about what’s truly polite, it’s good to step back and examine how we greet people ourselves.

Last week I flew out to a funeral. I wasn’t feeling like smiling, and on that particular day I know there were many people in transit who were also traveling for sad reasons. Yet this is what greeted me: “Have a Nice Day!” “Have a Great Day!” “Hi, How are you?”

These standard greetings have long bothered me. They don’t leave any room for emotions other than good cheer and happiness.

Good greetings do not carry the expectation of universal happiness. A simple “Hello” or “Good morning,” “Goodbye” or “Thank you” is much more polite, especially between acquaintances and strangers. People who are currently unhappy still have to answer the telephone and make trips to the grocery store, post office, gas station, airport or library. When I was mourning a miscarriage, store clerks and strangers on the street said “Have a Great Day!” and “Smile, it can’t be that bad.”

The people we meet may be struggling. They may be living with death, divorce, job stress, a recent diagnosis, depression, a friend with a serious illness or a child with special needs. A simple and open-ended “Hello,” “Thank you” or “Goodbye” is often best.

When I talk to parents about helping kids cope with wild emotions, I often ask the audience a question: How many of YOU had all your emotions accepted when you were growing up? Hardly a hand ever goes up. These greetings are just one more symptom of our collective desire for constant happiness. We need to make room for the full range of human emotions.

The next time you greet someone – friend, acquaintance or stranger – try reaching out with a simple “Hello.”

Posted in Parenting with Renegade Rules | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

4 Responses to Simple Hellos

  1. says:

    You are so right on Heather!! well said Jan

  2. I second that “well said.” Always feels ingenuous to say “great” in response to “Hi, how are you?” or similar greetings. Maybe we should come up with a greeting exchange that’s closer to neutral rather than encouraging everyone to be happy and having to pretend everything is perfect in your world as well.


    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Yes, pretending hurts the spirit. Passing people on the sidewalk, I say “hello” or “good morning.” With friends and family it can be neutral to say “It’s good to see you.” That leaves it open to all emotions – it’s good to see you, no matter what emotions you have with you today. Let me know what you come up with!

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Parent Signatures: Teaching Kids we don’t Trust Them

Parent signatures deprive  children of essential life skills.

Parent signatures deprive children of essential life skills.

It’s still summer vacation in most parts of the U.S., but soon the dreaded Signatures will return. I’m talking about parent signatures on everything from school work to piano lessons.

It used to be that parents signed their names for two things: field trip permission slips and report cards.

Now instead of feeling like a parent supporting my child’s education, I feel like a jailer. Everything must be signed to prove the kid did it: reading lists, spelling lists, daily planner entries (record of what you did in school that day), music practice minutes. The consequence if a child doesn’t obtain parent signatures? Skipped recess.

This constant signing creates a disturbing culture of distrust. It tells the child: We don’t trust you. We don’t think you care about your own learning. We certainly don’t think you can take responsibility for your own learning.

Teachers tell me the purpose of asking for a parent signature is not really about the child. Instead it’s a method of making sure that parents are involved in the child’s school life. The signature step shows the teacher that parents see what the child is doing and might even ask questions about school. A parent-child communication tool? This is wishful thinking. In some households, the bridge between home and school will never be crossed. A signature line, signed or not, unfortunately cannot change that. In other homes, there is already strong support and interest in education. The signature line is an annoying inconvenience and casts the parent into the role of police officer.

Parent signatures bother me for several reasons:

- It strips responsibility from the child. Any school work responsibilities should not be the parent’s job, it needs to rest firmly with the child. Requiring parent signatures on homework or other school tasks sets up an unhealthy relationship between parent-child. The signature mentality sends this message: “It’s my parents’ job to see I do my work.” This leads to the next bad habit: “I will only work when someone (teacher/parent/ boss) is watching.” or “I will only do my work when nagged.”

- It creates an aura of distrust and disrespect. Disrespect for family culture and relationships. Distrust and disrespect to children. The message comes loudly and clearly: “We do not trust you. Your word doesn’t matter.”  Of course, children’s versions of the truth are not always accurate, but neither are adults’. It is more important to me that children learn the importance placed on mutual trust and honesty.  This is partly learned by making mistakes. It is definitely learned by having a chance to practice.

- It reduces learning to minimum results. A child asked to get a signature for 15 minutes of music practice will toodle around on her instrument for the minimum time required. Quality of playing, genuine learning and internal motivation are out the window. The focus becomes: meet the minute guideline, get signature, be done.

- Inappropriate punishment. Most consequences for not obtaining parent signatures are inappropriate. A typical example: “If you miss 3 parent signatures you don’t get recess.” This is penalizing the child for adult inaction. It is unrelated to the task. Depriving a child of recess for any reason is abusive.

Children should never be deprived of recess for any reason, academic or behavioral. This is the official stance of the American Academy of Pediatricians and many others.

A signature should not be a tool against our children. We can do better creating a culture of trust and responsibility.

What is your take on parent signatures? Do you face a constant stream of signature demands? How can we do better?

Posted in Parenting with Renegade Rules | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

6 Responses to Parent Signatures: Teaching Kids we don’t Trust Them

  1. Melya Long says:

    Thanks for the article Heather. I do not think Alberta Education has reached such a regulated level. I work with preschoolers and although the demands are not so extreme, sometimes I wonder if Child Care Licensing will reach that extreme. There are so many common sense practices that have become regulated and I hope signatures will not become one of them. One of my first jobs is to cultivate trust with the parents. Children learn from that too. One of the Covey’s wrote a great book on trust. Cultivating trust within families is so important. A new chapter needs to be added regarding the education system in the US.

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Melya, So glad signatures are not part of your program’s day! As you say, cultivating trust is the first step. Everyone needs to feel safe before learning can take place, and that safe feeling starts with trust.

  2. deidra says:

    We treat our children with so little distrust in so many ways in the school system. Most schools don’t even let kids second grade and higher walk up to the classroom themselves before school starts. They have to wait in the cafeteria until the teacher comes up and escorts all the students at once up to their room. What does this say? I don’t trust that you are capable of walking up to the room by yourself to put your things away and find something to do (read, write in your journal, play with math blocks) until I am ready to start instruction. Will a child make a mistake? Of course they will. But then you talk about it and what is expect ed of them. Kids have so little power these days, we have to throw them a bone once and awhile. It means the world to them and teaches responsibility.

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Hmm…I hadn’t heard of schools that don’t let kids walk to their own classrooms. Certainly shows lack of trust and stifling of independence, probably in the name of safety. I’m thinking of calling one of my new chapters “Safety Second.” Experiencing reasonable power is necessary at all ages.

  3. JR says:

    I agree that we are over-emphasizing parent signatures and that it has all of the negative effects you describe. However, it does one thing: insulate schools from the “you didn’t tell me” of helicopter parents who refuse to allow their children to fail, ore even to struggle. Some of these parents either do not understand or do not appreciate the value – nay, the necessity – of the struggle in learning. Unfortunately I think the hyper-signing is here to stay until helicoptering is under control.

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Dealing with Disasters

After a plane disaster, kids may play plane crash. Don't worry.

After a plane disaster, kids may play plane crash. Don’t worry.

The plane over the Ukraine this week shocked the world’s adults. What about the children?

It can be tricky to talk about disasters in the news.  Kids don’t need to know about many disasters, but some events are so big every child notices. Kids see and overhear media talk and adult conversations.  They may not pick up on the details and reasons, but they do pick up on the worried tones of voices around them.

If you’re wondering what to tell your child about this disaster or a future one, here are some ideas.

Find out what they already know.  Chances are, kids have overheard something already, on the radio, TV, or adult conversation. Start from where they are.  Kids may be filled with mixed up information. If the child is young and he hasn’t heard anything /doesn’t seem interested, then drop it.

Go to the feeling  Tell kids it’s OK to feel sad or scared or angry.  These big feelings are natural and normal for all people.  You can say “I feel that way, too. I wish it hadn’t happened.”

Answer their question  Don’t give too much information, but be sure you answer the burning question(s) they have.  Ask “What do you want to know?” Check in and make sure you’ve finished the topic. “Did this answer your question?”

Let them play it out  Offer abundant free play time.  Play is how children work through things – all things – in life.  If you see a child fly a toy plane and crash it down on the living room rug, let the play unfold.

Tell the truth  Keep your words age-appropriate, but tell the truth when talking about difficult subjects.  A good rule to follow if you’re wondering if your child can handle it: If a child is old enough to ask, she’s old enough to hear an honest answer.

Focus on the helpers  This is Mr. Rogers’ age-old advice, and it’s good. Show kids all the good people who are helping: the firefighters, the doctors, the police, the people who are donating food or opening up their homes.

Take action You can’t change what happened, but you can control how you respond. Respond with care. Take control – we tend to feel most angry when we feel helpless. Take some action to help. Let your kids see you help, and ideally include your kids in the action.

Disasters are always part of the world.  Children can learn that bad things and sad things happen, but there are always people who will help make the world better.

How have you see children cope with disasters in the news? What do you do when a big news story occurs? What do you worry about? Do you have any stories of how kids have risen to the occasion with wisdom or action? 

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Yes, There are Bad Guys

Human rights are children's work, too. Poster by Anna, a middle schooler.

Human rights are children’s work, too. Poster by Anna, a middle schooler.

When the film “12 Years a Slave” came out, an adult friend of mine asked: “Should I watch it?”

Yes. It’s an uncomfortable topic, and difficult to watch in places, but the history it covers deserves attention. Adults must participate in the world and not be sheltered.  But what about the kids? What do we tell them about real-life horrors and “bad guys?”

I’m not alarmed by stranger danger, but I do believe children have a right to know that bad things do happen in the world. Human rights depend on it.

Enormous topics like slavery, the Holocaust, other genocide and human trafficking need to be talked about, and the talks need to start in the family.  Kids deserve to come to terms with these parts of humanity gradually, at their own pace. But children – and human rights – are both given a disservice when we keep kids overly sheltered from knowledge about “bad guys” of the world.

Start with the Family  Big topics need to start in the family.  It’s not fair to shelter kids for years and then have them learn about these horrors all at once in, say, 7th grade history class. Families offer emotional support, and families know individual kids’ personalities best.

Make it Gradual   It’s not one big “Talk.” Like honest and age appropriate talks about sex ed and human mortality, these discussions are on-going and organic.  Little bits here. Little bits there. Start very small and add layers of information as the child grows.

Preschool is OK   No, I don’t suggest flooding your young child with distressing, advanced topics. Most Holocaust experts advise waiting until at least 8 or 9 – that anything before that age will only bring nightmares.  Yet young kids who watch the “Sound of Music” can understand that the Nazis are bad guys. Young kids who learn about Moses in church or synagogue can learn what slavery is, and that people want to escape and be free. These are the simple foundations.

Focus on the helpers   This is the same message as helping kids cope with disasters in the news. Look for stories about good people who helped in terrible situations. Kids ought to know that there are more good people than bad people in the world, and that, yes, they can be one of them.

Bring it up to date  Kids deserve to know that terrible things are not just confined to history. Slavery is not over, as National Geographic pointed out to millions of readers. Today there are 21 million people enslaved around the world, more than at any time in history. Frame it as an opportunity – we can do something about it.

Take action together  Kids’ natural outrage at unfairness needs an outlet. Take action, and let your kids participate as you can. Send money to a human rights nonprofit. Start an anti-slavery group, part of Anti-Slavery International. Stand up for an injustice close to home. Support a group that is starting a new Underground Railway. Show your children there may be bad things in the world, but good people are trying to make it better.

Tackling difficult topics is part of parenting. Explain simple facts. Provide emotional support. Teach skills – including conflict mediation. Model positive actions. These are the whole world’s problems, and only the whole world can fix them.

When did you first learn about some of the atrocities of history or current events? What helped you understand? How can we best teach our kids and not overwhelm them?

Ideas welcome – this topic is one of many new ones that will be covered in the upcoming sequel to It’s OK Not to Share.

Posted in Parenting with Renegade Rules | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

4 Responses to Yes, There are Bad Guys

  1. Your best point was starting a dialogue early and adding bits of information gradually as the child grows and understands more. Sound advice.

    I don’t remember when I first heard of historical atrocities. I guess around 5th or 6th grade. We had a large Jewish community in town, and the teachers would occasionally bring in Holocaust survivors who lived in town to tell us first hand what they went through. Seeing tattoos of their prisoner numbers on their arms helped me understand that real people were harmed, not just a statistic in a history book.


    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Yes, we had real life people come to our school, too, but this is almost a thing of the past as far as WWII goes. We still can make it human for people by telling stories, especially stories about children so kids can identify with them.

  2. Emily Plank, Abundant Life Children says:

    Did you happen to see this article? — Similar to what you are talking about. When we traveled this last spring, we were faced with some difficult history in some of the countries we stopped in: Vietnam and Ghana, in particular. Plus, we saw evidence of lots of human suffering. We kept the conversations simple, but we told our kids about the Vietnam war and about the slave trade. We also told them that we have a responsibility to work for fairness for everyone — these lessons have been significant. I think you bring up a really good point about not waiting for 7th grade when they get flooded with all the horrors at once.

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Yes! Thank you, Emily. Some good thoughts about what the role of children’s books is. Books are a godsend for teaching about so many difficult topics.

      Wow – sounds as if your kids saw slave centers first hand. Sobering. Glad you were able to give them simple explanations that fit their ages. This is the first step in a life long of caring and justice-seeking ahead of them.

      It’s important we show what we’re working towards, and not paralyze kids. Thanks for sharing.

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Groups and Forced Participation

Groups can be fun, but don't force participation.

Groups can be fun, but don’t force participation.

Kids spend much of their young lives herded into groups. Now we’ll sing, now we’ll march in a circle, now everybody clap your hands. Many group activities are terrific fun for young children. Kids often gravitate toward the group and love to sing together, play with a parachute or hear a group story. But there are always times when a child doesn’t feel like participating. What to do about that?

A dance teacher recently asked me how to handle kids who didn’t want to follow the group activity during the 45-minute class. It was especially frustrating for her since the kids all genuinely liked dance and wanted to be there. No one was forcing them to take the class.

Kids have the right not to participate in a group. Don’t force kids to join in. Here are some ideas why:

Don’t feel like it.   Some days kids like being part of a group, and some days they don’t.  Sometimes they feel ready to try new things, and other days life seems overwhelming. It’s OK for moods and interest to change day by day.

They’re scared or worried.  Kids back away when they feel uncomfortable about something. Maybe the activity scares them (the whoosh of the parachute, a loud noise), maybe they’re worried about another child in the group and what she might do, maybe the group leader’s voice or style worries them. Feelings need to be respected. Try asking “Is there something you’re worried about?” or “Is there something you don’t like?”

Observers deserve respect.  Some children are observers. Especially in group settings, they may not be ready to participate, but are actively learning by soaking up the group action around them. Many times a child who never opens his mouth to sing at school will come home and sing all the songs at home for his parents. This type of learning can’t be hurried. Kids will observe until they are ready to try more (often longer than an adult judges is ‘long enough’).

Kids are individuals. Some kids (and adults) don’t like groups. Some kids can’t take it. Groups can also be developmentally overwhelming or overstimulating for a variety of reasons. Remember, a group is made of a collection of individuals with varying needs.

Don’t force kids to participate, but don’t let their actions disrupt the group.

So what to do when it’s group time? Find a space where they can be. Don’t worry if they sit when everyone else stands. Set limits to protect both the individual and the group.  “If you want to stand, stand in the back of the room so other kids can see the pictures.” “You don’t have to dance, but that’s what we’re doing now. Move to the window so you don’t get bumped.”

It’s hard for us to watch a child who doesn’t do what the group does. As an adult, it can feel disruptive or disrespectful. It can also pain us, seeing a child who doesn’t fit in or isn’t choosing to fit in. But it’s worse to force conformity. What sort of lesson is that? Children need to learn to trust their feelings and fears. When it comes to groups, we don’t want kids to learn that it’s more important to conform and be like the rest even if they feel uncomfortable. Peer pressure only grows stronger as the years go on.

What’s your experience balancing group needs with non-participation? Have you ever seen the wonders of observation?

It's OK small coverFind more in It’s OK Not To Share…And Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids, a “Best Parenting Book of 2012″ by Parents magazine’s  Or visit to learn more.

Posted in Parenting with Renegade Rules | Tagged , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

16 Responses to Groups and Forced Participation

  1. Patty Horvath says:

    I really loved this article. I am a para professional in Dade Co. Schools and have been trying to get this across to the teacher in my class all year. It is good to see it in print. I also liked the examples to connect with these children.

  2. Jenifer says:

    I was thinking about this regarding my daughter (who is almost 4) and kindergarten/grade school. She’s always been comfortable and happy watching activity at preschool or anywhere else until she feels ready to join (which doesn’t always happen). I worry about her being forced to join story time, and worse, music class or gym class. She’s got two years until she’s eligible to start public school, so I know she’ll change a lot, but it’s definitely something I’ll be giving a lot of thought to over the next couple years.

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Three is an age many kids thrive as observers. Glad you’re thinking about this issue. Sometimes just letting other adults know you’re fine with her observing style is all it takes to make everyone comfortable. An “It’s OK with me if it’s OK with you” can take you a long way.

  3. I am very grateful for your article. You have touched on a very delicate subject and handled it perfectly, I am not sure what happens in the classroom of all ages, but we forget the individual child the moment they enter a center. Your article deals with all ages in care. Some of the youngest infants are exposed to circle time and report cards when they enter care. Often times a child’s facial expression isnot taken into account when herded into group activities. I understand that children have to comply, but when they cannot for whatever reason, they can be labeled as non-compliant, learning disabled and the list goes on. Your post is so valuable. I wish we could rethink these group activities for the very young. There will be plenty of time for children to stand in line and wait.

  4. Jennifer says:

    I am an EC teacher in a self-contained classroom for children with autism. We have desks, bean bags, etc. where students can sit away from the group, yet have parallel participation. In addition, we have “break cards” available for those willing to sit with the group, but may become overstimulated during a lesson. Students with autism often struggle to look, listen, sit, and process information simultaneously. It is often in their best interest to let them keep a comfortable distance and interact at their own pace to avoid anxiety, overstimulation, and/or unwanted behaviors. Thank you for this article. I think it applies to all children, especially those with sensory processing issues.

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      You bring up important points. There’s such a range of individuals, and groups do provide an enormous amount of stimulation. Keep up your wonderful work.

  5. CJ says:

    I like this but I would like more information on what is developmentally appropriate. What age do we start working with them to identify what they are feeling so they can learn to get over their fears? I doubt a fifth grade teacher is going to be ok with a child sitting out of whatever activity they choose, at some point we have to teach them that they are going to have to do things they don’t want to, like homework. I definitely agree with this article but there has got to be a next step here to transition them from young learners exploring themselves and their world to academic achievers that are learning that the world has rules and expectations of them.

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I’d certainly ask a 2-year-old on up if they’re scared of something, or something’s bothering them. You never know what it might be. A scary-looking tree branch by the window, a kid who pushes them… As for transitioning to the next stage, that’s an excellent question. I believe it’s a gradual combination of both respecting individual styles/ fears and setting expectations. Other ideas?

  6. In my recently published book All About Bullying (Alles over pesten, see url) I approach the problem of bullying from a psychological, sociological, historical and philosophical perspective. The idea of a childhood in which a child grows up with allmoste uniquely other children from the same age (as happens in schools), is quite new. People used to live in vertical groups (different ages), which had two important benefits: 1) your position (and status) is a given fact which automatically changes in time (for new group members arrive and old members die) and 2) social knowledge about group life can be transferred from one generation to the next. These are two important features that lack in schools, where children have to define their position in the group against other group members of the same age, and without the knowledge of how to be a positve and supportive group. That is an important reason why bullying is a main problem in schools. Now, with regard to your story I would like to add the possibility of bullying: the child is bullied, the group is not safe. Of course this refers to your suggestion that a child might be worried, but if he or she is bullied, there is also a possibility that he or she cannot tell you about it, for this will reinforce the bullies and the child will severely be punished for telling.

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Best of luck with your book. Yes, groups are not always safe. Kids – spectators, not just the picked on child – need support speaking up and setting limits on behavior that hurts people.

  7. Loved this line, “Don’t force kids to participate, but don’t let their actions disrupt the group.”
    Thanks for this nice short article!

  8. vannamaria kalofonos says:

    very very true- it’s hard to convince teachers to allow children not to participate or join when they are ready

  9. Gina says:

    Thank you for this article. On my son’s first day of Kindergarten, I was asked to see the teacher after class. She told me my son was extremely defiant. Horrified, I asked what happened. She said he refused to to stand up and introduce himself when it was explained that the whole class would have to. She then asked if he frequently displayed this type of defiant behavior. I thought “Really?? A new school, new teacher, new classmates, is it any wonder why he might be hesitant?”. It’s too bad she didn’t read this article.

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Of Cauliflower and Cardboard: Finding Good Daycare

What to look for in a daycare?  Cardboard boxes, cauliflower and conflict mediation.

What to look for in a daycare? Cardboard boxes, cauliflower and conflict mediation.

When I was on maternity leave and searching for good daycare, I had definite ideas about what I wanted to see before trusting my child to a stranger. My original criteria included being home-based, play-based, having no TV and good grammar.  I wanted someone who would say “lie down” not “lay down” to my child when it came to nap time.

The “no TV” was hardest to find, and I quickly learned to modify my expectations about what was important when it came to grammar.

What to look for in good daycare? I’ve written about how to find a good play-based preschool, but many parents need full-time care to keep their jobs. At a reader request, here are a few guidelines to help with the search.

Plays with Cardboard Boxes   In other words, play-based. Most people will say the daycare is play-based, but I find that the more cardboard boxes are welcomed into the day, the more true play is going on.  Other good signs to look for: dress-up clothes and going outside a lot.

Eats Cauliflower   Originally, nutritious food didn’t make my criteria list. I simply packed food from home to counteract too much grease and sugar.  But the young years are a prime time for developing eating habits, and kids learn from modeling. Daycares that expose kids to a wide range of vegetables are a terrific foundation and may introduce your child to foods you typically don’t buy.

No TV or 1/2 Hour or Less   Daycare is for the youngest children and the American Academy of Pediatricians says no TV for children  0-2.  Make sure TVs are off in the house, not just where the children are, but in other rooms.  This “no TV” rule also shows you how involved the caregiver is in being engaged with the children.

Advocates for Sleep   Besides play and food, sleep is an enormously important part of the day for young kids.  Find out about morning naps as well as afternoon naps, ask what they do when a child tries to sleep and can’t.  Ask how long they get to sleep.  The more sleep the better.  Daycare is also a great way for children to learn to be flexible about sleep.  Kids learn to be able to sleep in new locations.

Sets Limits without Shame   Observe and listen how the adults talk to children.  Do they compare kids’ behavior “I like how Sarah is picking up” or say “Big boys don’t cry?”  Ideally, you want someone who is comfortable accepting emotions, but sets firm limits on behavior. These are the beginnings of learning conflict management.

Reads Books, Goes on Outings   All the good stuff.  Make sure there’s lots of time for reading aloud, even to the youngest children.  Outings are good for kids and are often a sign you’ve got a confident person in charge.  Outings don’t have to be elaborate, they can simply be walks in the neighborhood. Other daycare providers visit library story hours, have community gardens, ride city buses, and visit the fire station or post office.

Doesn’t Advertise   Go by word of mouth to find the gems.  The best care providers often don’t need to advertise.  They’re always full.

The Basics  Someone you trust. Someone you can afford. Someone who is available. Don’t worry if you can’t find the ideal daycare right away.  Stick with the basics.

Searching for daycare is an anxious time, but remember, the children will be fine. Find an opening, then get on a waiting list for a place that meets more of your criteria later.

What are your criteria?  What do you look for?  What’s the sign of a fantastic daycare provider?

Posted in Parenting with Renegade Rules | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

2 Responses to Of Cauliflower and Cardboard: Finding Good Daycare

  1. Kelly says:

    These are the signs of a good provider, in my book, after working in child care for 15 years. Luckily, after a rough start, we found someone that meets all of these needs. You want to walk with 8-10 kids (including my two year old twins) to the park a block away on a regular basis? Perfect! You have a “no thank you bite” policy on veggies? Perfect! You spend the majority of your afternoon outside? Perfect! You spend the majority of your mornings reading stories either one on one or in small groups and then engaging the kids in elaborate pretend games? Perfect! If a child doesn’t want to participate in the activity you planned for the day, you let them choose from a whole host of developmentally appropriate but challenging and fun activities? YOU ARE MY HERO.

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      So glad you found the perfect spot for your family. Sounds as if you have a confident provider and I hope you shower him/her with thanks. As your story demonstrates, it’s common for families to start off with a “rough start” and then settle in to finding the right person to fill their needs.

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Summer Slide or School Slide?

Summer doesn't mean soggy brains. Summer is a chance for a child's soul to expand.

Summer doesn’t mean soggy brains. Summer is a chance for a child’s soul to expand.

As the school year wraps up, the usual things come home in my kids’ backpacks – stubby pencils, forgotten jackets, artwork, end-of-year piles of papers. But one item startled me. It was a note assuming I was scared of summer:

“We have come to the time when parents start to worry about how they are going to keep their student’s skills strong over the summer.  Well, relief could be on the way!” Then the note went on to introduce summer tutoring available.

This note was in a kindergartener’s backpack. It reminded me how wide-spread this concern is among parents. The fear that kids will forget what they learned in school during the summer months, the so-called “Summer Slide.”

I’m afraid I take the opposite view. I’m not worried about kids’ brains in the summer – a time when they can think their own thoughts, play their own games, and take a break from academics – I’m more worried about what they might be losing during the school year. Time to think. Time to explore. Time to find out who they are.

Play can Thrive   Especially for kindergarteners, tutoring is not necessary. They can learn much more through play and exploring the world. It’s not the Summer Slide I’m worried about, it’s the “School Slide.” School doesn’t give enough time for young hearts to play.

Life is Time   Schools teach many valuable lessons and skills, but school days are long and dominate the day. That’s especially true if you add on bus rides, extended day programs and homework. School grabs most of a child’s time. It’s simple math. When school hours dominate, there’s not much time for a child to do anything else. All humans need time to explore their own interests and ideas.

Reading Often Gets Stronger   In families who read, reading skills grow stronger over the summer. Summer is a time when storytime can get longer, kids have plenty of time to read for pleasure, and libraries have robust reading programs. This is one area where income and family dynamics play an enormous difference. In about half the families, summer reading time boosts kids’ vocabulary and reading level. In the other half, reading slides because there is no reading.

Learning is Not all about Recall  When tutors and teachers talk about “summer slide,” they typically use the statistic that kids are set back 2-3 months worth of instruction time. Math or science facts may certainly be rusty, but learning is not only about recall. Learning cycles through the brain, some things stick, some things don’t, but sometimes the process of learning has been strengthened. The child’s ability to do logical thinking has been enhanced even if they’ve forgotten the exact facts. A test does not necessarily tell “where” a child is and whether she/he has learned.

Kids’ Ideas Matter  The biggest difference between school-time and non-school-time is the space to explore kids’ own ideas. For my kindergartener, that means flapping mud into the sandbox. For my 9-year-old, that means going to the park with a friend or creating his own board game from cereal box cardboard. The chance to explore what interests them matters. Kids have been told what to do for many months. Now they need the chance to share their own thoughts with the world.

It’s Not all Important   Heresy, perhaps. Not everything taught at school is important. New curriculum requirements ask teachers to present an array of material that may or may not be useful to kids. Some of it is never “learned.” Some is not relevant. What may be important to one child is not important to the next. Our brains are very good at parsing out what’s not important.

Of course, not every child has ideal summer days.  Summer is a daycare scramble.  In our family, we have a flock of summer sitters lined up.  Some kids need extra help or structure in the summer. But still, wherever your child is, summer is a time to focus on life besides academics. It’s a time to relax routines. For a child, it’s a time to revel in the glorious business of discovering who they are.

I’d rather see a note come home on the last week of school that says: “Read stories to your child. Go outside. Have a wonderful summer and enjoy the world.”

Do you worry more about what’s being “lost” in the summer or in the school year?  How can we bridge the gap between reading families and non-reading families? What do you think you learned during summers as a child?

Posted in Joyful Literacy, Parenting with Renegade Rules | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

8 Responses to Summer Slide or School Slide?

  1. Erika Cedillo says:

    I loved your post!! We are just experiencing the first year at school with my oldest daughter and I was getting on that mood but your post just reminded me that summer is about life and fun. I really loved it!! Thanks for reminding us how much our children learn from playing and exploring the world around them.

  2. I agree with everything you wrote, Heather. One of my strongest recurring end of school year memories is all the plans I was making to “do stuff” during the summer. Nothing related to school usually. Mostly games I wanted to play, places in town I wanted to explore, what my friends and I would do with our days, going to the beach, playing baseball or softball, going to the local park and doing all the activities the “park leaders” would facilitate.

    Perhaps most important, the chance to run, jump, climb, get caught in the rain, do “nothing” and come home at the end of the day dirty, sweaty, tired, but glad it was only one day out of about 90. So I guess what I learned during summer was how to be a kid.

    I don’t worry about anything being lost during the school year because the act of learning in a certain genre is what’s really taught. By genre I mean- music is an aural language and playing music or singing teaches us to use that part of our brain which requires us to use our hearing to analyze, adjust, synchronize with other musicians. Math is a numerical language that teaches us to use the calculator part of our brain. Reading is a visual language that teaches us to develop our word and thought forming skills. Visual Art is a tactile, sensual language that teaches us how to create or reproduce shapes, colors, three-dimensional objects and better understand what makes an object pleasant to look at or touch.

    When I was in band all through school, I rarely remembered any pieces we performed or practiced that year. But the next year I had improved and was able to play successively more difficult music because I had gone through the process of developing my skills one piece at a time, one note at a time. It’s the doing part of the learning that’s most important, not the retention part of the learning. Retention comes after the doing.


  3. Heather Shumaker says:

    Thanks for sharing your memories, Chris. Love your phrase “it’s the doing part of learning that’s most important.”

  4. CJ says:

    Thank you for this post! I’m so sick of hearing about the “summer slide” in the media I want to scream! As a preschool teacher for the last 12 years, every year I seem to see more and more 3-5 year olds who don’t have the chance to just explore, dream and, yes, learn during the summer. And they are, in my opinion, suffering because of it. My children are grown now, but I was very blessed to be able to let them have their summers to “think their own thoughts, play their own games, and take a break from academics.” They were able to do things and explore things during the summer that they didn’t have the opportunity to during the school year. My oldest, my daughter, in now in a very competitive graduate program studying Physical Therapy. My youngest, my son, will be a junior in college this fall, and plans to continue on in grad school in Audiology. Did they suffer “summer slide” during their summers “off”? Absolutely NOT! They have become well-rounded adults because they were able to do all that you talk about in your post. Very sorry for the long post, but I wanted young parents to know that it IS OK!

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Thanks for your encouragement to all parents raising kids out there. Fear and worry can get out of hand. Many thanks for adding your voice.

  5. Nikki Stahl says:

    Your new slogan:

    It’s okay to play.

    I want to wear a t-shirt and shout it from the rooftops!

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Screen Time for Parents

Kids need our attention - and the competition is fierce.

Kids need our attention – and the competition is fierce.

I remember when I first saw someone walking down the street with a cell phone to their ear. It was a remarkable sight, and not that long ago.  Now what’s remarkable is seeing someone who’s NOT got a device attached in every day life.

As parents, we worry about how much screen time our children should have.  What exactly they’re watching on the screen, and what they’re missing out (outside time, creative play, exercise, etc.).  It’s true, we need to give this deliberate thought.

But who is limiting parents’ screen time?

Children yearn for attention.  In the past, direct competition for attention in a family most often came from other siblings. Kids also have to compete for attention with jobs, caregiving for ailing grandparents, or parents’ board committees and activities that take them away from home.  But the biggest competitor of all is the Screen. The smart phone, ipad, laptop, or other must-be-tethered-to digital device.

You see it in the park: Parents texting while their child says “Mom, look!”  You see it at restaurants: Parents scrolling through screens at dinner.  You see it at school pick up times: Parents still talking on their phones while glancing down to make sure they’ve got the right child – no smiles, no big welcoming ‘hellos.’

Computers and young children don’t mix for me.  The screen steals my vision and my focus.  Even if it’s a small computer “chore” the screen requires my attention.  My peripheral vision shuts down.  My awareness of what’s going on around me vanishes.  I don’t like the social impact screens have on my ability to relate to my family, so I relegate computer time to times my children are asleep or at school.

I also hate to be tethered and “on call” to a constant flow of messages.  To write and think and thrive, I need plenty of space and time. My brain works better that way.  I feel more settled. Creative ideas pop up.  I can give people around me true attention.

Children have never been raised before by Parents-on-Screens.  Studies are coming out now that look at the vast impact, such as Harvard’s Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of the Big Disconnect and this recent story from NPR.

As we seek a way to navigate screens with our parenting, we must not focus only on our child’s screen habits. How is our screen use drawing our families together or pulling them apart?  How are screens impacting our relationship with our partners? What are exactly are we modeling?

Share your stories – have you seen kids competing against screens for attention? Do you feel your screen use is impinging on your real-life family relationships? What are your tips for keeping digital device use in check?

Posted in Parenting with Renegade Rules | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

4 Responses to Screen Time for Parents

  1. I think the electronic distractions will get worse until it gets so pervasive that it becomes “cool” to not be attached to an electronic device. Unfortunately, our kids will suffer because they’ll learn to behave by watching Mom and Dad. And when the kids have children of their own, their children might rebel against their parents completely ignoring them because they’re a slave to their devices.
    I only hope we don’t become a world of zombies wandering around with our eyes glued to a screen.

    My only tip is that real life is not what you see on a screen! Put it away and look at the beautiful scenery instead of videoing it with your cell phone! Bend over and smell the flowers instead of googling roses on Wikipedia to find out what they smell like. Attend a concert in the park in your town and listen to a live band rather than check the latest one-hit wonder out on YouTube.


  2. Nikki Stahl says:

    I still don’t have a smartphone for this reason. It’s too hard to parent while being that distracted. And, I’ll admit that I’m just as addicted to the Internet as everyone else.

    There are so many emotional/educational/social development reasons to not be on a cell phone when you’re with your children, BUT what gets me the most is how unsafe it is.

    We live in a region surrounded by water and everywhere I go I see parents with small children, near water, distracted by their cell phones. You see it so much, it hardly even registers in your brain that it shouldn’t be done, but when a two-year-old wanders into a boat ramp with a car backing down, and nobody notices, it is just terrifying. I’m hoping there comes a day when beaches and other public water access areas have signs posting about the dangers of phones and kids.

    Of course, this is not just limited to water. The just-walking toddler on the top of the jungle gym makes me cringe just as much.

    But, I shouldn’t just write about it here. I should do something about it!

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful post. “It’s too hard to parent while being that distracted.” Parenting requires a lot of multi-tasking as it is, devices can make our patience and thinking skills even more fragmented.

      Beaches and phones – yes, that is a new danger. Thanks for pointing it out.

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Watching our Words


What seems reasonable to us may be wrong for kids.

Tired old phrases often come out of our mouths when we talk to kids, especially in times of frustration.  Do you find this happening to you? When we’re exasperated, our minds reach for the first thing that comes to the surface.  Often it’s the exact words we hated hearing as a kid ourselves.  Parent Speak.

Sarah MacLaughlin has compiled a guide of “What Not to Say” when talking to young children. You’ll find many common phrases in there, including “Be nice,” “Because I said so,” “What’s the magic word?”  “Don’t you say no to me!” and many more.  Sarah explains why the phrase is ineffective and what’s a better option to try. If you follow renegade rules parenting, you’ll find several familiar ones such as “Go say you’re sorry,” “You have to share” and “Good job!”

When you put them all together, what some young kids hear is a litany of bribes, threats, shame, power, labels and confusion. We can do better.  But first it’s important to recognize what phrases don’t help.

One of her phrases under the power play chapter caught my eye.  It’s all about control and shame:  “Look at me when I’m talking to you.”

This “Look at me” sentence is a classic clash between adult expectations of respect and child development needs and feelings. When something serious needs to be said, we desire eye contact.  We want to make sure our words are heard.  We want kids to understand what was wrong and not do it again. We want to make sure children learn cultural ideas of respect. Maybe we even want them to squirm a bit.

For many kids – especially in times of high emotion – they can’t look and listen at the same time. Looking directly at someone’s face can be overwhelming. If they do look at you, they might not be able to hear you. If a child buries his head or claps his hands over his ears, say “I know you can hear me,” and keep talking in a firm voice.

If you were brought up with a string of child rearing phrases you don’t wish to repeat, you might like to check out Sarah MacLaughlin’s slim book.  It’s packed with respect.

What phrases would you like to be rid of?  What irritating ones do you hear? What’s your experience about children looking you in the eye?

Posted in Parenting with Renegade Rules | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

2 Responses to Watching our Words

  1. Leanne Dyck says:

    My training as an Early Childhood Educator helped me to rewrite some of the script I’d written as a child minder. For example, instead of saying, “Don’t run.” I learnt to say, “Walking feet.”
    Well, when you say, “Don’t run” all the child hears is run. And even if they hear the entire sentence all you’ve done is told them what not to do. You haven’t given them an option. Whereas, “Walking feet” gives them that option in a nice, tidy two word sentence.
    I’m looking forward to featuring you on my blog this coming Friday, Heather.
    Happy wiiting

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Thanks, for sharing your story, Leanne. Yes, we can all learn new words!

      It can also be really wonderfull to say “Run!” (finding places where kids can run). Location is the big deal here, ex: “This room is for walking. Go outside if you need to run.”

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What to Say Instead of “Sorry”

A guarantee - "I won't push you again" - is more meaningful than "sorry."

A guarantee – “I won’t push you again” – is more meaningful than “sorry.”

Kids love the word “sorry.”  Just say “sorry” after you push someone and the adults are appeased. It’s magic. One short word and you’re off the hook.

We expect kids to say “sorry” because we want kids to patch things up, to care about others, to develop empathy and awareness and to feel remorseful. The trouble is, young kids are rarely sorry. Saying “sorry” on command doesn’t make the word come true.

You can’t force remorse.

Remorse is part of moral development, and needs to come from inside the child. You can help develop those feelings by focusing on what a child can do: take action and make a meaningful guarantee.

Take Action – Kids are great at taking action.  Involve them in making things better.  “Go get an ice pack!”  “Bring the tissue box!”  “Find Ava’s favorite teddy!” Give the child an action they can do. Taking action also brings the child back to the scene where they can witness how sad or hurt the other child is.  This helps develop awareness of others. Becoming a helper also helps the child feel better about what they did, especially important if it was an accident.

Make a Guarantee - It’s much more meaningful for a child to say “I won’t push you again” or “I won’t knock your tower over.” These are powerful words for kids on both sides of the problem. The aggrieved child feels safe (I won’t get pushed again/ my toys are safe).  That’s a lot more comforting than hearing an insincere “sorry.”  Sorry doesn’t carry a guarantee.

For the child who makes the guarantee, those words also carry tremendous power.  It’s amazing to see, but kids who make a verbal guarantee tend to live up to their behavior statement. Of course, there may be times it doesn’t work. If a child makes a guarantee but still can’t control his impulses, acknowledge the challenge and move him away. “It’s too hard for you right now. Your body can’t stop pushing. I will help you stop. I’m moving you away from Ava.”

A guarantee – “I won’t push you again” – is more meaningful than “sorry.”

Guarantees and helper actions do more to truly resolve the problem, foster awareness of others, and yes, develop empathy and remorse. As for the word “sorry,” don’t worry.  Saying “sorry” is a cultural norm. Kids will pick it up if we model apologies in every day life.

What have you found that helps kids be truly sorry? Do you ask kids to say “sorry” because adults around you expect it? Have you ever been surprised by kids’ kindness? 

Posted in Parenting with Renegade Rules | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

6 Responses to What to Say Instead of “Sorry”

  1. One of my favorite parts of your book, Heather. You nailed the key: you can’t force remorse.

    I’ve often been surprised by kids’ kindness, but I think in most situations it was because the kid had suffered the same ailment (bad cold, scraped knee, getting hit by another kid) so they had real empathy and they knew what would make the wounded kid better because they had received similar treatment when they were the hurt party (ex, Mom kissed the booboo, or gave him/her a hug or a favorite stuffed animal, etc.)


    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Nice that it rhymes, too!

      Kids often don’t know what to do after they did something wrong or hurt someone. The more we model and give them ideas to truly resolve the problem, the more they rise to the occasion. Love your examples of kids following models they’ve witnessed many times.

  2. Great short synopsis of why we ought not force children to say they are sorry. I love your book too, and sometimes it’s nice to have an easy-to-digest post like this to share with a new friend. I’ll be sharing it out from our “Respectful Parent” Facebook page soon.

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Glad it was helpful, Dawn. Many thanks for comments and thanks for sharing it with others who may benefit from re-thinking “sorry.”

  3. Thank you for summarizing this, Heather. I’ve found your explanation and alternative very helpful both with my toddler and with the primary school pupils I teach. I like that its simple and effective – most other approaches designed to develop empathy and remorse end up more like a lecture.

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      You’re welcome. Yes, it does work for many ages. As you say, it’s not a lecture – it’s the kids talking to each other and developing skills and values inside of themselves.

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