TRAVERSE CITY — Luke Shumaker comes to the door in a Renaissance "princess" costume, blond curls framing his face.
Boys Can Wear Tutus (and princess costumes) is Rule 9 in his mom Heather Shumaker's new book, "It's OK Not to Share ... and Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids" (Tarcher/Penguin, $15.95). The book goes on sale Aug. 2.
Shumaker, of Traverse City, said she felt compelled to write the book after a return visit to the Ohio preschool she attended as a child and where her mother teaches. Its unorthodox ideas go against all the conventional wisdom, yet work in a way most child-rearing ideas don't, she said.
"There's a huge disconnect between what we know about kids and what we're doing with them," said Shumaker, a mother of two — Luke is 4, son Alex is 7 — and a journalist whose work has appeared in publications like Parenting and Pregnancy. "Kids need unstructured play to develop emotionally, socially and even academically. Kids are hard-wired to play. This generation has decided that early education is what kids need, when actually the opposite is true. We've come to distrust childhood and to think that we know better."
The book turns on its ear entrenched parenting notions like the importance of sharing and banning play with toy guns. Rough-housing and swearing are allowed, saying "Good Job!" is not. Other renegade rules: Sex Ed Starts in Preschool, Allow Kids to Choose (and Reject) Playmates, and "I Hate You" is Nothing Personal.
"Preschool is a challenging and surprising time," Shumaker said. "Parents get surprised. They want to have nice kids and they get worried when their kids express their anger by hitting and kicking. They make a leap that there's something wrong."
Instead, she argues, those kids are developing in social and healthy ways.
"Not everyone is going to like the book, not everyone is going to agree with it,"
"Not everyone is going to like the book, not everyone is going to agree with it," said Shumaker, who explains why each rule works, provides research to back it up, and offers tools parents can try and then add to their "toolbox." "The ideas are unconventional and go against everything parents think is right. But if you hear out the logic, you see these are ideas based on common sense."
For instance, forcing a child to turn over a toy to another doesn't teach generosity, Shumaker said. Instead, "one child gets what they want right away and the other child feels terrible." By giving the first child control over the toy and letting him decide when to share it, he experiences the true meaning of generosity, while the second child learns delayed gratification, which helps teach impulse control.
"There's a great marshmallow study that said kids who are the most successful in life are the kids who learn delayed gratification," agreed Maggie Sprattmoran, executive director of the Leelanau Children's Center. "Unstructured play helps teach self-regulation."
The center offers a play-based program that emphasizes social and emotional development, which in turn builds strong students, Sprattmoran said.
"Play is the base of our program and we are great defenders of the right to play. If you watch most mammals, that's how they develop," she said.
Shumaker believes schools like the Leelanau Children's Center and Columbus, Ohio's School for Young Children are all too rare.
"There are schools here and there founded with this viewpoint, but they're very isolated and they're getting fewer," she said. "When I went to schools, I was shocked at how little play was going on and how much academics were pushed."
She blames the shift away from play on a sped-up, indoors, scared culture with so much emphasis on safety and structure that kids don't get to make choices or take risks that are part of natural development. Letting kids be kids not only makes parenting easier, but leads to competent and compassionate kids, she said.
"Kids are on the same evolutionary path they've always been on, but the parenting focus has shifted," she said. "Right now more parents are advocating for more homework in their backpacks.
"We need to take off our adult lenses and think like a child," she said.