If your child climbed up the playground slide, would you stop her? Would you be OK with her using a razor-sharp saw? If he needed to play or go to sleep, would you insist that he finish his homework? Go down the slide. Safety first. Do your homework. These make up some of our most sacred parenting rules. But would our kids be better off if we turned these conventions on their heads?
Healthy risk is part of life. For parents, that can mean the risk of rethinking parenting wisdom you've always known. Keeping kids safe is not about sheltering them. Kids need risk and conflict—in kid-sized doses. Kids become safer when they gain tools and experiences they need to encounter life.
See where you stand on these counterintuitive parenting strategies:
1. Handle sharp knives, hammers and saws
No kid likes to get hurt. Once a child understands the concept of "sharp," she's going to do everything possible to avoid the blood and Band-Aids. With training, even a toddler can use a knife and chop up fruits and vegetables. Just go gently; a great place to start is with a banana and a butter knife. Then move to a blunt-nosed kitchen knife designed for little hands. Guide and train, then let them try. When you put kids in charge of their own safety, they become more aware of their bodies and gain valuable skills and confidence. You don't believe young children can do it? Just watch kids at a Montessori school prepare their own snacks, or watch young woodworkers in action.
2. Read a sad story like "Charlotte's Web"
We'd like to spare our children sorrow, so it's tempting to rewrite sad endings and keep the focus on happy. But just like us, children aren't happy all the time. They need practice coping with big feelings, like sadness, fear, and anger. Books are a great place to practice with sad feelings and can help kids develop empathy and compassion.
3. Talk to strangers
The old advice "don't talk to strangers" doesn't work anymore. For one thing, we now know that family and friends are the ones most likely to harm a child. For another, children are safer when they gain street smarts, not when they're paralyzed by fear. Warnings about strangers confuse young children. Just who is a stranger? To a preschooler, it's someone who's big or mean or wears funny clothes. Many kids think a person is no longer a stranger once the person says his name. Strangers are most likely to be your child's helpers, so it's time to teach better safety messages, including "if you're lost, find a mom or dad."
4. Skip homework
Whether or not your family likes homework, you should know this: homework's benefits are highly age dependent. It works best in high school. For young kids, homework can actually hurt. It takes time away from other crucial developmental needs, like sleep and play, and often hurts kids' attitude toward school. When the research is examined, such as Dr. Harris Cooper's review of 180 separate homework studies, it's revealed that homework at the elementary age shows no academic benefit. This is a big topic, so take time to test what works best for your family, but one thing is clear: nightly battles with overtired 7-year-olds are not helping anybody.
5. Bypass kindergarten and go straight to first grade
Kindergarten is optional. Your local kindergarten may be a great fit for your child, but if it isn't, there are alternatives, including skipping kindergarten altogether and going directly to first grade. There are many ways to prepare for school, and young kids get ready through non-academic activities, like physical and imaginative play. Brain research is showing us that rough-and-tumble play strengthens the frontal lobe, which is a key area for academic thinking, like memory, focus, and executive functioning. If your child is not the sit-still type, look for a preschool, homeschool, or daycare program that welcomes true play. Then go to first grade when she's ready.
6. Climb up the slide
When kids scale the wrong side of the slide, we shudder and try to stop them. We yank them off partly to avoid other parents' judging eyes, but also out of genuine concern for the child coming down. This common playground situation is one way we avoid conflict. But kids benefit from encountering conflict and figuring out solutions, including setting limits on other children. Sure, step in if there's danger, but otherwise, stand by to guide kids as they sort it out. Kids seek challenge and fun by going up the slide. If you let the play unfold, both up-climbing and down-sliding kids may gain awareness of others and potential new playmates.
Heather Shumaker is national speaker and author of "It's OK Not to Share and "It's OK to Go Up the Slide," which includes sections on safety, healthy risk and homework for children, including ideas for schools and families to opt out.