Heather Shumaker is the author of "It's OK Not to Share," and "It's OK to Go Up the Slide," which was published last month. She has added her voice to a chorus of mental health professionals and free-range parenting advocates who all assert that children benefit from being allowed the room to fall, fail, and otherwise experience pain. We spoke with Heather about the difference between danger and risk, and how this idea applies to tweens venturing into the online realm.
PARENT CO: I was intrigued by your post on the Daily Beast (Yes, Let Your Kids Talk to Strangers), and it got me thinking all sorts of things about what you call “healthy risks.” It almost sounds like an oxymoron.
HEATHER SHUMAKER: I think that parents are mixing up danger and risk. We think risk is something that’s going to hurt our kids, but risk is completely different than danger, or getting hurt. Risk is taking a chance, and trying something, and extending yourself. Sometimes in order to grow and change, and get that healthy life that we want for our kids, it doesn't mean playing it 100% safe; it means taking some things that are reasonable risks, healthy risks.
In order to be a living, mortal person that's going to be who they can be, we have to take some risks and sometimes get skinned knees. We protect kids a lot from the social and emotional risks, and some of that is just from the fear that they'll get their feelings hurt, or that they will feel sorrow, or that they might be temporarily scared.
I agree that we overprotect our kids from the emotional injuries that are just going to happen to any human. Do you see that inclination coming from our own unresolved traumas or wounds, from our own childhood?
When I speak around the country I ask a room full of people, how many of you had all of your feelings accepted as a child? In a room of about 200, maybe two people or one person will raise their hand. For most of us, it doesn’t have to do with the traumas in our life, it has to do with the fact that we were not taught how to cope emotionally with all the feelings that come: What to do with our anger, how to resolve conflicts, what to do when we're feeling sad. We need our parents or older people to guide us when we have these big huge feelings. Happiness can be a big huge feeling, but usually the ones parents have trouble accepting are the negative ones.
Anger, sorrow, frustration, jealousy; all those difficult feelings are ones that we don't tend to have accepted, so then we don't have emotional coping skills. All we know is that it hurts. We're trying to protect our kids from that kind of hurt. When you have the coping skills to deal with these big emotions, sure being sad or being angry is not pleasant, but you know you can get through it, you know what you can do to get yourself out of it.
The really key thing that we, as adults, need to recognize is that all the feelings are okay, but all the behavior isn’t. You can be mad, but you can't hit your brother. Accept the feeling, but limit the behavior. We often don't separate them, we just go, “Why did you hit your brother?”
I think that's such an important distinction to make. I'm constantly reminding myself of that. I'm hyper-aware of allowing my kids to feel all the things, but I still have to remind myself to differentiate for my children between the behavior and the action.
Right. Then to find the appropriate outlets for them. Actually my first book “It's Okay Not To Share,” has a huge section on emotions, and emotional expression, and separating the behavior from the feelings. I think that once that foundation is in a family then you can more comfortably move on to this concept of healthy risk. Otherwise it's too scary.
I'm curious what you think it is – either in your background or research you've done – that's enabled you to trust in the relative safety of what you're calling healthy risks?
It’s the way I was brought up. For me it’s second nature. I don't have to get over the fear as much as other people do. I can see the fear around me and I understand that living with fear is a very difficult thing. It stresses us as adults, it stresses the kids, too. For example, my father when we were outside taking a walk in the woods, he was constantly encouraging us to balance on logs, or jump over streams, and try to jump over streams at the widest part we could. Sometimes we'd slip and get wet.
He taught us how to run down hills, and to fall. He'd say, “You're going to fall so here's how you fall safely so you don't get hurt. You tuck yourself in and roll with it.” Just that attitude of assuming there will be knocks and bumps in life, you can make that a metaphor for all sorts of things.
You also talk about this notion of teaching kids to listen to their instincts more; to trust their gut feeling about people and situations.
We do, as humans, have this survival instinct, and some of these ideas are coming from Gavin de Becker, who wrote “The Gift of Fear.” I cite his work in “It's Okay to Go to Up the Slide.” One of the things he talks about is developing those street smarts, and relying on that instinct of,“Uh-oh, something's not right.”
(In cases of) sexual abuse, people talk about that “uh-oh” feeling. It doesn't feel right, even though (the abuser) is telling you, “It's our private game and it's okay.” Your stomach is telling you it's not right.
Listening to that (feeling) is much better safety training – for us to help our kids tune into that voice – then it is to just lock them inside and not let them play in the front yard by themselves.
Even just having your child interact, having him or her ask the librarian the question instead of you asking the question. Having them interact at the grocery store with the check-out clerk. Maybe the check out clerk who has down syndrome, and is bagging the groceries. Lots of interactions, that's how kids pick things up.
They'll notice what's different, and they might ask you questions about it. Having exposure and experience is the only way that anybody can gain and hone this kind of skill. We all have it, but it gets sharper if we practice.
What if my son is saying, “I'm too shy to ask if I can pet that stranger's dog.” How do you know when to actually push a kid to do something he doesn't want to do?
You don't know, but let's take the dog example. A lot of kids are fascinated by dogs, and they really do want to pet the dog. If they want you to do it for them, you can make a judgement call on that particular day. Maybe it's a day that they're feeling a little bit off, and you want to say the sentence for them, “Can we pet your dog?” If everything is going well, and the child is well-fed, and well-rested, and they really want to do this, you can say, “I will stand right next to you. I will be there with you when you ask.” That moral support is enormous, because what the child is doing is taking a social risk. Taking social risks can be huge for some kids.
Speaking of risks, we’re preparing a series of posts about tweens, sex, and social media. Can you talk about the risks versus the real dangers posed by social media, specifically.
Pornography and taking advantage of kids sexually, that is a danger. The risk is if the child's on the computer and social media, they would be exposed to that danger.
Do you have any thoughts on applying your methods, if you will, to the tween generation and specifically the online world?
It's complicated. You've got to be talking about these things – big topic, important topics – continually. Not every single moment, but also not one big talk when your child is 12. It's a gradual process. If that's something that you've been doing, or able to start doing, the child has a lot more knowledge and awareness of what dangers might be.
Also as far as social and emotional coping skills, I think that when a child ventures into the online world, I'm a big believer in you've got to have a foundation of real life skills first. If your child is having trouble resolving conflicts with her friends in real life when she's 11, or whatever age, then they're not ready for social media, because it makes it all harder when you can't read the body language. You've got to have a strong foundation in what's okay and how to treat people well in real life.
As you're talking I'm reminded of something you said about exposing kids to sadness and grief, and not necessarily shielding them completely from the news of the world. It seems to me this falls in that category. Americans tend to approach sex ed from a very glossed over, rather timid perspective. I think that contributes to the risks we’re talking about. Like you said, if you don't have the basic knowledge then you can’t make informed choices.
Kids need to know the basic knowledge of how a baby is made, and they can start learning that when they're two and three, because that's usually when a second sibling is coming along, and there's pregnancy in the house. It's a perfectly natural time to talk about it, but then continue the conversation over time. Then lead on to the next thing.
Yes. We miss those opportunities sometimes out of our own fear. How would you advise someone who feels they’ve missed a bunch of opportunities, and now they have a 12-year-old who's facing this new territory?
Assume that your child has accumulated quite a bit of misinformation. And it's okay to acknowledge, “I'm sorry I didn't talk to you about this when your were little.” Then ask what he knows, because then you have a base of knowledge of what he knows, or what she knows. Then probably something will pop out that's a little ridiculous; start by straightening those things out.
Just dive in, because kids are safer when they have information. My basic guideline with difficult topics, whether it's a terrorist bombing in the news, or how babies are made, whatever the difficult topic is, if a child is old enough to ask, he's old enough to get an honest answer.
It gets back to the idea of healthy risks. In general, kids take on as much risk as they can handle.