Kids need Good News

Share wonder and good news with kids. Too many problems can be paralyzing.

Share wonder and good news with kids. Too many problems can be paralyzing.

I stumbled on a bit of environmental good news this month. Amid tales of climate problems, declining honeybee populations and invasive carp it’s rare to hear good news stories about the environment. Since 2004, Americans are driving less. Much less. In the last ten years, every measure of driving distance has significantly dropped: per person, per vehicle, per household and per licensed driver.

What good news.

Whenever we share big topics with kids – taking care of our planet, caring for people, stopping injustice – we need to be sure to share buckets of good news. Children need a chance to approach their world with a sense of optimism and change.

It’s easy to impart the bad news. But too much bad news can be paralyzing. As a child growing up in the 1970s, my schoolmates and I were bombarded with messages of destruction: environmental destruction and cold war nuclear destruction. I grew up convinced the planet I lived on was doomed and there was nothing I could do about it.

All the topics we care about – racial, environmental, inequality or other – are complex, on-going challenges. We can make progress in our lifetime, but we’ll need the kids to make progress, too. Share the problem, but share the good news, too. We all need a dose of both to make things better.

Good news environmental stories make us all realize we can change our direction.

Curious about the study results? See pages 4-5 here.

Have you shared wonder and good news with your kids lately? How’s your outlook? Have you been ingesting too much bad news media? There’s both good and bad out there.

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Homework Letter Update

Update on banning homework in favor of play and family time.

Update – building log forts and banning homework worked.

First, thank you to the folks who have read my controversial post “Why we say “No” to  Homework.” I must admit, I was blown away by the thousands upon thousands who read that post.

Many of you have asked excellent follow-up questions, but since there were so many of them I didn’t know how to respond at first. Now I know. I’m incorporating “Homework” as a major topic in my next renegade parenting book. Meanwhile, I’ll answer one of your burning questions here.

What happened after our family wrote the “we ban homework” letter?

The letter sparked a good conversation with my son’s third grade teacher. We talked about how we supported his education at home. We talked about her goals for the class and her goals for him. We agreed to no homework and that it was still his responsibility to master what kids were learning in class. Thanks to her flexibility and understanding of individual needs, the year went by without a glitch.

It seems more teachers are willing to be flexible in the younger years, especially if parents show they care and are involved. My child’s first and second grade teachers also agreed to no homework for our family, but each year the pressure increased. This school, on the whole, believed in homework for elementary students and had the common “10 minutes a grade” policy. By 4th and 5th grade homework was expected to be 40-50 minutes long each night (though many families will attest it took much longer) and became more serious. We were heading into a true clash of education cultures.

So last year we changed schools. This is difficult in our small town because there aren’t a lot of options. We now send both our kids to a charter school that basically has no homework until middle school. They encourage reading every night at home.

The individual approach — the “no homework” letter — is a difficult path that gets harder as children grow older. What really needs to happen is mass change and education of educators. For my next book, I’m digging into research that shows that there is no evidence that homework at the elementary school age helps at all.  Many scholars dispute its worth at the middle school level, either, and that any homework over two hours a night for high school has a diminishing return.

So it’s a happy ending for us. My son is in 5th grade now and tells anyone who will listen that he goes to a “really cool school!” But the problem is immense. Every day people find my blog by typing pleas on the internet like this: “my 7-year-old is in tears with three hours of homework” “homework is ruining my family” and “it’s past 10pm and my 4th grader is still working on homework.”

What’s your update? For those of you who have tried to buck the homework system, what was the result? I’d love to hear from you.

What happened? Did it work for you? What’s your homework story?

It's OK Not to Share coverHeather Shumaker is the author of It’s OK Not to Share…And Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids. New book coming in 2015.

Posted in Parenting with Renegade Rules | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

7 Responses to Homework Letter Update

  1. Marta Zeegers says:

    Hi Heather,
    As a Pre-K ECEer, I was rather stunned last year when a parent approached me to find out why her just-turned-four year old daughter wasn’t reading yet. She was baffled as to why we weren’t doing worksheets. I tried my best to explain my classroom, and that I would not be asking any of the children to do worksheets or pressuring them in any way to “learn to read” but rather providing a literacy rich environment within a larger child-rich environment.
    Don’t know if my message got through to her, but I hope so!
    I love your book, my copy has so many dog-ears and creases… I share bits of it with whoever will listen! Thanks for making the language so easy to use!

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Good to hear your story, Marta. Yes, I’ve heard from many teachers that parents ask for worksheets and homework, even at a young age. The process of education goes both ways. So glad the book is serving you well. Those kids are lucky to have you.

  2. Robbye Edwards says:

    Love to hear others who have the same opinion on homework. My 17 year old is an “Out of the box” learner. He makes all A’s, other than Algebra 2. When trying to speak to his teachers about his learning style all of them agreed with my opinion except his Algebra teacher. He would rather spend his time at home building computers, websites and Apps., riding dirt bikes and rebuilding his 73″ Duster. We are blessed to go to a private school that has an understanding of learning styles:)) He is being moved from that class to a teacher who supports our decision. He still has homework but he is not up until 2 AM( seriously) like his classmates. I’m pretty sure he is going to grow up to be a healthy, happy, productive member of society!

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Good for you for speaking up and finding a teacher that was a better match. Wonderful – thanks so much for sharing your story.

  3. Lisa says:

    Heather, I’ve been fighting the homework battle for over two years. I have 7 kids – my oldest is now a high school senior, and I am sad to say that when he was in elementary school, I just didn’t know better, and I would fight with him daily over homework, taking on the role of drill sergeant/enforcer, because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. It wasn’t until my fifth child was in first grade a couple of years ago that I had kind of a revelation. She was coming home from school every day with a packet of worksheets to do, and she would cry and dawdle and complain that she was tired, and I would sit there and make her do her homework anyway. Then she started complaining of tummy aches and saying she didn’t want to go to school, and that’s when it hit me: this is all just too much for a six-year old. I started reading everything I could get my hands on about homework and realized that as a practice, it’s not evidence based and has no intrinsic value, especially in elementary school. I tried to reason with my daughter’s first grade teacher, but I was met with “My way or the highway.” I ended up telling the teacher flat out that I just wasn’t going to make my daughter do homework anymore and I really didn’t care if her grades reflected it, and that teacher and I had this huge falling out over it, drama drama drama, blah blah blah. Anyway, my daughter didn’t do any homework for the rest of the school year and did just fine academically. But since then, I’ve taken it to the district and the school principal, trying to get the homework policies changed, and nobody will budge. So I fight individual teachers about it, and sometimes they are receptive, and sometimes they are not. I now have a high school senior and a seventh grader, both of whom manage their own homework pretty well. I have two fifth graders (twins) who have daily homework, but I’ve made clear to their teacher that I will only support homework to the extent that it doesn’t create stress and tension in our house, and that it doesn’t interfere with other activities/pursuits. My fifth child is now a third grader and I’m actually pulling her to homeschool her because she’s falling through the cracks at school. I really feel like her first grade teacher did her a huge disservice with her inflexible authoritarianism and turned my daughter off to school, rather than instilling in her a love of learning. In second grade my daughter was placed with a teacher who was counting the days until her retirement, and this year she’s gotten placed in a 3-4 combo class with a teacher who is teaching full time for the first time – AND she’s very committed to homework as a necessary practice. So I finally realized that if I don’t do something a little drastic to try and turn things around for my daughter, she’s going to have years of misery ahead of her.

    Anyway, you’re right that the problem is a big one. The whole thinking surrounding homework needs to change, but I’m really not sure how that is going to happen. I am really losing confidence in the public school system, what with overcrowded classrooms, Common Core, and homework policies that are not supported by evidence.

    I write a blog about school and homework if you’re interested:

  4. Lisa says:

    Also, I meant to address your point, too, about your son remaining responsible for mastering the material even without doing homework, and I just wonder how a child can do that when so often, teachers do make mastering the material dependent on homework. So often, it seems that teachers rush through lessons (I’m sure due to time constraints) and then expect the practice and application of the lessons to take place at home. How do we deal with that?

  5. Good for you, Heather! I opted to homeschool for the same reasons. I hope your bravery has an impact on the public school system. Hooray for teachers who are willing to listen with an open heart!

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Recess is as vital as Lunch

Taking away recess is the same as taking away lunch = bad for learning, health and education.

Taking away recess is the same as taking away lunch = bad for kids and learning.

What if you heard a teacher say: “Your assignment is late. You can’t eat lunch today.”

Preposterous, we say. Lunch is essential for giving kids energy. It boosts brain power, helps focus and concentration, and gives kids a social break. So does recess.

More than 30% of U.S. schools have little or no recess. For schools with scheduled recess time, teachers commonly hold recess over kids’ heads as a disciplinary threat. Restless behavior? No recess. Late homework? No recess. Missing parent signature on reading log? No recess. Didn’t finish a class assignment on time? Stay in for recess to finish it.

Recess should never be taken away for any reason. Recess is as essential as lunch.

Cognitive work (school work) takes enormous amounts of concentration and mental energy. Recess restores it. Simply looking at academics, recess is vital to improve memory, learning, concentration, creativity, problem-solving and other executive functions. Recess also refreshes the spirit, it improves children’s attitude toward school, and gives them an emotional and social break. It’s a chance to see friends and do your own thing. Recess is break from being told what to do all day.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says in its 2013 policy report that “recess is a crucial and necessary component of child’s development and…should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.”

Like other forms of corporal punishment, depriving kids of recess is a misguided practice that has to go. Yes, recess deprivation is corporal punishment. “Corporal” = of or relating to the body, and “corporal punishment” includes physical imprisonment.

Can teachers manage without this particular management tool? I have confidence they can. Teachers once thought they couldn’t manage their classes without swatting kids with wooden boards. Bad practices seem convenient at the time, but they have no place in quality education.

Taking away recess – whether by schedule or as punishment – deprives kids of the chance to learn at the best of their abilities.

Besides, those restless kids? Their bodies are telling us a simple message: we need recess the most.

Find out if your child’s school has a protection policy about withholding recess. If not, try addressing the issue with the classroom teacher with a preventative note:

Dear [teacher's name],

We feel strongly that recess is an essential part of the school day for optimal learning. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that no child should be deprived of recess time for any reason (behavior, missing classwork or any other). If you need to discipline [child's name], please do so in a way that does not compromise recess. We’re happy to discuss this more with you at any time that’s convenient. We’d like to do whatever we can to support you in the classroom.  Thank you for all you do for the students.

Sincerely,  [your name]

Has your child ever been deprived of recess? What was the cause? What other methods work well for educators?

It's OK small coverHeather Shumaker is author of the book It’s OK Not to Share…and Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids.  Her new book, coming out 2015, includes chapters on recess and homework. See more at

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5 Responses to Recess is as vital as Lunch

  1. deidra says:

    My son’s old school withheld recess for kids who did not complete their work. When I complained and said it was a punishment, the principal wrote back and said it was a consequence and not a punishment. It happened to other kids in his class and other kids at the school. I am really not sure how she was able to get away with it, because the NYC DOE Wellness Department had a policy prohibiting the use of physical as a punishment or reward and a policy against withholding recess as punishment.

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Wow – a school violating its own policy about not withholding recess. A true educational and cultural gap there. Glad he’s at a new school!

      • deidra says:

        We are very happy too. His day is a little longer, but the trade off is 30-45 minutes for lunch and 45 minutes for recess. A much less hectic and more humane lunch/recess period.

  2. Jaime Havard says:

    The school my son attended was usually the #1 school in our state and they stopped having recess for classes 3rd grade and up a few years ago. For years I thought the principal just wanted to keep that top position and I blamed her. When I started investigating Common Core and related testing issues I realized it was not the ranking…. it was the growth. They are under an incredible amount of pressure to continue to grow even though the scores are already knocking on the ceiling. Testing begins in 3rd grade so a regular recess period vanishes – to squeeze those last percentage points out of successful students. There is no finish line in the “Race To the Top”.

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Third grade is far too young, as you know. My next book is compiling research that shows academic performance and even test scores tend to go UP when kids have recess. Sometimes school officials will be swayed by the logic of the data.

      Perpetual growth is impossible to maintain no matter what you are measuring, especially humans.

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Kindergarten Crash

Is your kindergartener crashing after school? There's a good reason.

Is your kindergartener crashing after school? There’s a good reason.

If you have a new kindergartener, perhaps this scene happens in your family: Sudden crash when you get home. Screams. Tears. Droops. Falling asleep in the car or on the sofa. You know something’s not right. What is it?

Kindergarten Crash. It’s an extreme message that something’s not right. Listen.

Last year I sent my youngest off to kindergarten. He was the first one in the family to go to all-day, every day kindergarten, and he rebelled with every inch of his 5-year-old little body. The long day wiped him out. When I picked him up from the bus he collapsed on the sidewalk, shrieked and dissolved in tears. At home, he had no energy to play. He just sat in a chair and stared, day after day, his toy pirates untouched.

He fell asleep for the night at 5pm.

Kids across the city I knew in other schools had the same reaction. One girl fell asleep in her car seat at 4:30pm. Another girl cried in the parking lot and screamed when she came home. Another kindergartener cried every day before school for 8 weeks. These are signs of kids showing extreme stress and exhaustion.

What was happening? These were the same kids who had been at all-day daycare or preschool for many years quite happily. It wasn’t an issue of separation. They were used to being away from home all day. They were used to being in groups of young children. So what was so different?

Adult expectations. Daycare gave them naps, playtime, outside time, stories, songs and free play. The pace fit the child.

Kindergarten used to include naps and free play time. It used to be half day. Children haven’t changed, but adult policies and expectations have. Kindergarten children are now expected to sit still most of the day, perhaps have one 20 minute recess, and focus on academics all day long.

What was different? As a fellow mother said “Less play, less food, less rest.”

“They’ll be fine,” said one kindergarten teacher. “They just need a few weeks to build up their stamina.” Build up their stamina?? No, we need to reset expectations to match the child.  Kindergarten should be an in-between year between early childhood and grade school. Expectations need to shift accordingly.

If schools can’t do it, parents need to take charge. There are alternatives to kindergarten. If it takes too long for school policies to catch up, families need to create new spaces for 5-6 year-olds now. What can you do instead of all-day, every day kindergarten?

  • Don’t go. Kindergarten is not mandatory.
  • Pay for another year of daycare or preschool. You don’t have to redshirt. Go directly to 1st grade next year.
  • Homeschool the kindergarten year. It can be spent mainly in the sandbox.
  • Search high and low for a kindergarten that still allows half days.
  • Try a “Young Fives” program – but beware, these do not tend to be play-based, just mini academic kindergarten programs. However, many Young Five programs do allow half days.
  • If you need more daycare, supplement Young Fives with after school care – this tends to be more relaxed and social and full of play.
  • Find a charter school or alternate school that fits your child better.
  • Pull your child out.  Give him rest days, pick him up early for half days, or only send him 3-4 days a week. Some principals and teachers will support you with this.

Whether you work full-time or whether you are mostly home with your kids, there are kindergarten alternatives that can work for you. If your child is stressed and overly exhausted, her needs are not being met. Find a way where your child can relax and be the age she is today.

Avoid the Kindergarten Crash.

It's OK small coverRead more in It’s OK Not to Share…And Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids.

What is your experience with long kindergarten days? Did they differ from preschool and daycare? How did your child cope?

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12 Responses to Kindergarten Crash

  1. says:

    I totally agree with you Heather. Many elementary teachers don’t know child development which I would think would be a requirement of their teaching position. A professor in my graduate school class asked me what I thought early childhood education was missing in their curriculum some 20 years ago. I said social and emotional development which is the most important in preschool. Lots of preschools have caught on. Too bad most elementary educators haven’t learned this! What is wrong with the system??? Jan Waters

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      I’ve heard from many kindergarten teachers who know kids need something different – yet they are part of school systems that require a set curriculum. It’s heart breaking for these fine educators who feel their hands are tied and can’t give kids what they most need.

  2. I observed with mixed emotions yesterday the beginning of all-day kindergarten as mandated by my home state of Minnesota. I don’t know if it’s required for the children to attend or just required of all schools to offer ADK, but I wasn’t aware that kindergarten is optional. Perhaps that fact is conveniently hidden from public view by those for whom controlling children longer each day is in their best interest. If ADK is optional, I’m sorry that most parents leap at the chance to dump their kids into the hands of “the system” at such an early age.

    At the same time, I am mollified by the fact that many kindergarteners in my town can now spend a full day, five days a week, away from their godawful home situations. We have a sizeable share of free- and reduced-price-lunch eligible families in town. As a former Big Brother to a Little who came from a poor home with little discipline, supervision, and parental guidance, I’m glad that maybe a few more kids can be influenced positively by more exposure to a safer, saner environment than they get at home.

    But on balance, no kindergarten, or home schooling if school attendance is required, is the way to go. Most kids can easily be taught at home what they learn in school, outside of some social graces. But as you say, the vast majority of kids grow up in day care, so socialization is no longer the issue it once was.

    Great post as always, Heather


    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Chris, yes, it’s often presented as “of course you have to go to kindergarten.” Minnesota’s new law seems to similar – kindergarten is still OPTIONAL, but it’s presented as the start of school. Ex: “Thanks to a law signed by Gov. Mark Dayton in May, all Minnesota families will have the option of sending their young children to all-day kindergarten free of charge.” The previous law was that parents had “the option” to send their kids to half-day kindergarten.

      The other issue you bring up is frequently used to advocate for early childhood programs. Especially for kids from dysfunctional homes, kindergarten and preschool need to be a time for social and emotional learning and processing.

  3. Erika Cedillo says:

    I wish I had read this last year! I feel you because we went through the same and you put it in clear words!! And after this year I totally agree with you, the adults’ expectations from a kindergardener are way too high, we need to readjust to their real age. My story has the twist that my girl has a developmental delay and all they could see were her behaviours. It was really hard to make them see further that she was really communicating, with her actions she was trying to tell that things were not good for her. I also agree with you that we need to read the signs and advocate strongly for our kids, that’s what I did. In addition, I have decided to hold her back and do KG again, but this is related with her being born in the fall and her delay. Thanks so much for your blog!

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Thanks for sharing your story, Erika. Yes, all behavior has meaning, and your daughter was certainly communicating. So glad you stood up for your child and found a solution that works for your family. All the best for this year.

  4. Mel B says:

    Interesting. I have twins currently in ADK. One thriving, one in melt-down mode. I have lots of thinking to do. The “twin” issue complicates it even more. Leave one in and allow the other a shorter week? What does that do to the sibling dynamic? How will my 3rd grader and the twin Kindergartner react if I allow a shorter week for the melt-down Kindergartner? I’m quite positive they would ALL like to stay home 1-2 days/week. Hmmm…will be a good discussion for my husband and I.

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Ah yes, the sibling question. Thanks for writing. Sounds as if you will have good discussions with your husband about this and I’m sure you’ll come up with a good solution. Here’s some ideas you might find useful or could help other families in a similar spot.

      It’s certainly easier with older siblings – acknowledge what you’re doing and why. “This is what a 5-year-old needs. When you were 5, we made sure we met your needs. Now Jacob’s 5. He needs more time to rest.” You can tell your older child stories about when s/he was 5. Describe what her kindergarten year was like, what you did to meet her needs.

      As the parent of twins, you certainly are used to navigating the extra challenges of fairness between twins. Besides fairness, there’s individual needs. “You were both born on the same day, but different people have different needs. It’s my job to support each of my kid’s needs.” There’s no harm in giving both kindergarteners a rest day sometimes, but if one is truly thriving and loving ADK, you might try giving the thriving twin an option at early pick-up time. If s/he’s already happily engrossed in class when you come along with an option to go home, your child might say “Oh, no, I want to stay and do this.”

  5. Helen Rubin says:

    31 years ago I bought the book of Florida school laws! There I discovered that my rising age 6 in Nov son was only required to attend 4 hours per day thru age 6 (he was placed in an experimental pre-1st class so technically skipped K because of his age and school convenience). The principal was mad that we even asked for our rights, more upset when we wanted to continue the 4 hours throughout the year! The children had compulsory nap time for most of the afternoon so he may as well have been home with me and his younger brother.
    Thank you for this post Heather – it is so sad to read of the same issues in early schooling around the world when ‘all’ academics know that play is best!

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Four hours a day sounds perfect. Good for you for being a sleuth and standing up for your rights and what you knew was right. Love this story.

  6. Tawn says:

    I love this post in many ways; parents have so many rights to decide how to educate their child, and many 5yo are NOT ready for a full academic day. That being said my daughter did great in full day kindergarten last year; but it was set up well. Three recesses (without the older elementary school students running over them at the playground), lunch after recess, snack, PE and music alternating days, as well as computer labs a few days a week, reading groups, math groups . . . lots of action built in and good quiet time corners in the classroom.

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Three cheers for three recesses! Maybe that made all the difference. So glad your daughter had a good experience. Thanks for sharing.

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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 , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

8 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.

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Love it! Glad it has been working so well for you. Vicki Hoefle has a lot of wisdom, doesn’t she?

      Thanks so much for sharing what worked for your family. Year by year I tell teachers they won’t be seeing my signature on spelling lists and other logs. It gets harder as more teachers get involved.

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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 , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

19 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.

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Gina, this story is remarkable – except that it’s also unfortunately common. Thanks so much for sharing. Would you mind if I share this story as an example? Hope your son’s found a better fit this school year!

      • Gina says:

        Please, feel free to share. It is my hope that no child should have to be labeled “defiant” when the whole situation isn’t taken into account.
        Yes, thank goodness, this year he has a better fit!

        • As I kindergarten teacher, I always am careful not to create situations where the children are forced to be self-conscious and often embarrassed. Their consciousness of self is slowly waking up, at their own rate, and does not need to be forced. Some children simply are not ready to be noticed by naming themselves, or even being part of a daily ‘show-and-tell.’ And I have visited so many early childhood programs where indeed the children are made to introduce themselves, to “share” something for their experiences, etc…It is because adults in general seem not to understand early childhood development and it makes me sad.

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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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