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Parenting Pitfalls: Renegades, Privilege And Putting On The Boxing Gloves

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Heather Shumaker encourages "renegade parenting."

You could call it the parenting trap. Being a parent comes part and parcel with being judged by other parents. And parents aren't always shy about giving their opinions on others' parenting style — be it on parenting blogs, articles, books or at the playground.

Last year the major controversy was over "free-range parenting." This year, two parenting writers are offering new, and sometimes opposing, ideas.

Heather Shumaker is the author of the book It's OK to Go Up the Slide. She embraces what she calls "renegade parenting." Shumaker encourages such parenting heresies as banning elementary school homework, letting kids punch each other (with boxing gloves), and rejecting much of the conventional wisdom as "worn-out habits that don't work."

Writer and blogger Stephanie Land doesn't like the term "renegade parenting." Land thinks the ability to be more of a hands-off parent is something of a "privilege." In an article in The Washington Post, she takes issue with what she says is a stigma against poor parents and how their levels of cleanliness are judged.

"Raising a family on government assistance places you in a narrow margin of acceptable levels of appearance. If my kids are unkempt, dirty, snot-faced, and otherwise disheveled, I fall into the realm of neglect, extremely impoverished, and white trash. Our used car is acceptable if it's in good running condition, the car seats properly installed, and without trash spilling over or smoke coming out the tail pipe. If I had, say, a newer car, my children had nice clothes, and we all had hair that looked to be well-styled, people would assume I was taking advantage of the system when I paid for groceries with food stamps."

Heather Shumaker and Stephanie Land spoke with NPR's Michel Martin about the foundations of their parenting beliefs and what to do about all this judgment in the parenting world.

Interview Highlights

On general principles of parenting and how she came to her beliefs

Heather Shumaker: The fundamental rule, or renegade rule, if you want to say it is: It's OK if it's not hurting people or property. So to allow children to play and follow their own play ideas — but set limits too. It's not a free-for-all. ...

A lot of these ideas are based on a preschool that I went to as a child, of where my mother taught for 40 years in Ohio — and they do things differently. For example, they give kids boxing gloves and allow them to punch each other during the school day. And this is not typically done in a lot of places. So I was intrigued, because I felt highly respected when I was a child there.

So when I grew up and I was looking for a place for my own kids, I went back and observed and said, "What are they doing, what are they getting right? And why is it working, why are these kids able to solve conflicts and able to deal with their big angry emotions? And able to be diplomatic when they have a problem that comes up in their play?"

On opposing the term "renegade parenting"

Stephanie Land: I don't think it's a term that applies to all populations of parents in America, especially ones who are in poverty or single parents or parents of color. It's a privileged way of looking at parenting, to allow your children to go against the grain as it were.

On her article about messiness and poverty

Land: There is a meme that I keep seeing on Facebook that says a messy house means that the mother who lives there is more concerned about playing with her kids than she is about keeping a clean house. And at first I thought: well no, it's just because you don't want to clean. But then it really hit me that I keep appearances so that I don't appear low-income. Because I am raising my daughters — in the past it was well under the poverty level and now we're just about at poverty level. And I've been very concerned about how people view us.

If you were a "renegade parent," would you be seen as negligent, while an upper- or middle-class person would not be?

Land: Yeah. Imagine me sitting on a bench at a playground and my daughter's running up the slide and all the other kids are wanting to go down it. I think people would look at me as being negligent. Especially if they know a bit about my background — I live in a small town, or I have several tattoos. There are just certain ways that people might look down on me because of my status. And I think that would bleed over into my kid's behavior and she would be seen as unruly and I would be neglectful. And it's not an eccentric type of parenting, it would be my neglect as a parent.

Heather, what do you think about that?

Shumaker: Parenting is filled with judging eyes — all kinds of judging eyes. And when families who have certain boundaries and certain concerns come together in a public space, all those types of things clash together. If you see a child going up a slide or doing something else that seems unruly, most adults will try to stop it. Because they're worried about politeness and they're worried about safety — and then they're also worried about what the other adults are judging them as adults on.

One of the things that we need to remember is that playgrounds are for play and that that social interaction between the upgoing child and the downgoing child — that kind of conflict is an important part of play and learning. For the kids to figure out how they can negotiate that and problem-solve it. And generally, maybe with some adult guidance, maybe the kids can do it on their own. They may start doing creative play together and involve each other in a game. But when we step in and try to stop it that can hurt.

But ultimately, it's very individual, because people have to decide how much they want the judging eyes of others on them. And there's a lot of factors that go into that, as she said.

On being judged constantly as a parent

Land: I feel like I'm judged harshly, I think especially because I chose to have a second child when I was on food stamps. That is the thing that I think I'm most heavily judged for.

[People judge] almost everything that I write. I wrote a piece about my second daughter's birth and one of the commenters went straight to: And who is supporting these children, the government? And that is always a default — that I'm a mooch of the system.

What people should take away from It's OK to Go Up the Slide

Shumaker: Well I think you need to trust your gut. So that if your child is exhausted after a long day of school and they're crying over homework, and you know they need to go to bed or let off some steam — you know, trust yourself. Or if they're having no recess at school, but gym class is being substituted for it and you think that's wrong, you're probably right.

So if something's bothering you, it's time to make a change. And just because the adults around you are judging or thinking something is right doesn't mean it's what's right for children, doesn't mean it's what's right for child development.

On social stigmas about poverty

Land: Within the context of what I write about for the Center for Community Change, just on social and economic justice, we fight very hard to change the stigmas surrounding people who live in poverty. And especially people of color who live in poverty. And we just hope that by realizing that the parents especially of the working class and the lower classes — we work very hard and we are just as good of parents as the higher classes. And we're not lazy or neglectful or anything along those lines. And I would just hope that some of those stigmas can be changed.

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