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redshirt

My older son has an October birthday. When he was just shy of four we were lucky enough to get into the very small pre-K program at our excellent local public elementary school. Ever since Kindergarten, when he was not yet five (and instantly besotted with a girl who was a whole head taller and about to turn 6), I have questioned every teacher about his relative readiness–academic and, more important to me, social and emotional. At every parent-teacher conference, I have been reassured that he is well-liked and performing at or above grade level. Despite consistent assurances, I can still recall one Kindergarten testimonial verbatim, which, among lots of other things, referred to “some social emotional bumps and bruises along the way.”  In the depths of my intermittent insomnia, when I chastise myself into the wee hours for not having renewed my passport or not having filled out the mandatory school lunch form, I recite these lines like a self-flagellating mantra. Sleeplessness has a way of coaxing a mother down that irreversible anxiety luge.

Which is why I was somewhat relieved to read the article in yesterday’s New York Times Sunday Review entitled “Delay Kindergarten at Your Child’s Peril.” Granted, I have spoken to enough parents I trust–and have spent enough time with their kids–to believe that redshirting is absolutely the way to go in  so many cases. I believe every child is different, and factors like gender, physical size, social skills, verbal skills, etc., should be considered in the decision. But I was relieved to have some of my perhaps not-fully formulated intuitions and suspicions confirmed by this piece, namely, the questions surrounding the all-important act of learning. “In short, the analogy to athletics does not hold. The question we should ask instead is: What approach gives children the greatest opportunity to learn?” While parents, myself included, spend a lot of energy thinking about the ways in which they can give their child “every advantage,” we give a lot less consideration to the “advantage” of letting them make just the right number of mistakes in order to experience the satisfaction of the reach. And again, how big or small that reach can or should be depends entirely on the kid.

Although the idea seems obvious, this was the first article I’ve read that made sense and gave me some peace about all of this, especially the following bit: “Learning is maximized not by getting all the answers right, but by making errors and correcting them quickly. In this respect, children benefit from being close ot the limits of their ability. Too low an error rate becomes boring, while too high and error rate is unrewarding. A delay in school entry may therefore still be justified if children are very far behind their peers, leaving a gap too broad for school to allow effective learning.”

We would love to hear from you about how your decision to “push” or to “hold” has worked out for you. I think all of us could use a little reassurance, no matter what camp we have found ourselves in. In the end, the only thing that really matters is the testimony of other parents.

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Comments (8)

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  1. Posted by: Julia

    Maybe I should wait a couple of years before I give my opinion here, but I’ll go ahead all the same… My daughter is 13 mo and we’ve been sending her to daycare for 5 hours Mo-Fri, since she turned 6 months. I went to daycare 9 1/2 hours daily, since I turned 43 days old and right until I was 6 yo, when I started having only 5 hours of classes. I can say I’m pretty institutionalized then :-)

    My birthday is on the limit, so I always was the youngest of the class right into my last year of college. I hated, hated, hated it so so so much that I planned giving birth safely away from that date. My child self was jealous of kids celebrating birthdays in Spring, because turning that age had novelty and because they were chummies with everyone (unlike me, who was handing out birthday party invitees to virtual strangers in the first week of classes). The summer when everyone could drive and drink booze but I couldn’t, was hellish.

    And yes, there was the size and maturity thing… well, here I am with the article’s author. There wasn’t much advantage for the “older” kids, not one that really mattered unless they were the real deal. Illustrating this point are my husband and his best friend, both on the “older kids” team: they were then, and still are, brilliant minds. Regardless of age.

    So, to sum up, in my own experience and view, there isn’t any real advantage for older kids in the classroom. Except the birthday party thing, which hopefully my daughter won’t have – though I anticipate a mega eye roll when the weather is crappy and she pointed out that it never rains in my birthday. Well, you can’t have it all, can you?

  2. Posted by: jennifer

    Often in the Manhattan private school scene, parents aren’t given a choice. The schools decide, particularly with boys who have summer birthdays. We were told, under no uncertain terms, that we needed to apply to start K at age 6. So far, it has worked out fine for both of my boys. One is in 3rd grade and the other in 1st. But there always has to be a youngest and oldest in the class. So you wind up with the situation where the whole class is simply older, or the class spans a large range of ages. At my sons’ school, their grades have birthdays that span a whole year. For example, my son started already at 6, but there are others who started at 4 soon to be turning 5. I don’t have any regrets about having to start them at age 6. In fact, I think it has been beneficial for both of them…. but it certainly seems like an imperfect system.

  3. Posted by: Emily

    Its kind of silly, the age limit, it could be a day or two and mean the difference of a class! So, whatever you decide, just make sure you have a warm glass of milk, a special treat and a few minutes each day to talk to your child about their day at school and help them work through any issues or challenges with humor and candor. If its because they feel small or because they are taller than everyone else. Its teaching them to do the best with what they have that is important.

  4. Posted by: Morgan

    My daughter’s school system in Portland, OR didn’t really give us an option to push my October birthday girl ahead or not. There is the possibility for a September birthday (since school here starts after labor day) to test them in to kindergarten if they are still after the August birthday cut off date, but for October you’d have to really really want your kid in school early and be prepared to petition and advocate. I didn’t see the point. There are so many things to worry about with our kids and playing the game of “am I setting them up for the best college opportunity or adult success” seems not only very East Coast, but also an impossible game to play. Who really knows what their child’s adult strengths are going to be as a 4 or 5 year old. We all want to think our kid is “bright” and will be bored as the older kid in kindergarten, first grade and beyond. The thing is, most kids aren’t “bright” they are normal and boredom doesn’t always mean they are too advanced for the curriculum. My girl is now one of the oldest but not the oldest in her class. She is bored by things that are not interesting to an almost 8 year old. She’s also in a Spanish immersion program at her public school so she’s doubled up on language, reading and writing. Would her experience be any different if I started her a year ahead? Would it matter by time she’s 17?

  5. Posted by: Sara

    As a kindergarten teacher who is now staying home with my two year old daughter (with an August birthday – eek!) I felt that in some cases it was better for the new 5s and almost 5 boys to wait a year. The littlest boys were frequently not as ready for the sitting and waiting and turn taking required in a big kindergarten class. There were still lots of bathroom issues with the youngest boys as well, logistically with pants and snaps (heavens to betsy if anyone wore overalls!) but also in that they still thought some things were funny that the rest of the class saw as babyish (often bathroom related humor:) It was, at times, unnecessarily isolating to feel like the little one. That said, I had other boys who were young 5s and did fine, more than fine. I have much more complicated feelings for little girls. The 6 year old girls would often be placed in the “helper” role too frequently, which is lovely, but not at the expense of their own exploration and learning. I don’t know yet what I’ll do when it’s time to send my daughter. We’ll see who she is at 5. It tough to make any universal rules, particularly those based on gender, of course.
    It’s ALWAYS individual in the end.

  6. Everyone has that magic bullet that helps them see their situation more clearly. I had two. The first was a kindergarten teacher who said to me “just because he can read does not mean he’s ready for kindergarten.”. The other was an informal poll of adults with august birthdays – I asked them how it was for them being the youngest in the class. All of them said it was fine. But if you kept them talking, 100 percent of them eventually admitted to feeling like they were always scrambling to keep up with the big kids. Especially in high school. During these conversations, many of them noticed for the first time that they had naturally gravitated toward the kids in the year behind them. I really didn’t want to be responsible for adding yet another layer of teen angst to my future teenagers plate. And so we waited. And we seem to have hit the nail on the head. Now a third grader, my son really does seem younger than the fourth graders who would have been his classmates.

  7. Posted by: Sally Schultheiss

    i have been in your exact same middle-of-the-night torture chamber, where all my life’s insecurities get funneled into my children’s august birthdays (yes, both of them). In the end, I always come to the conclusion that he’s fine, and that my worry is always just greed: could he be MORE fine? could he be totally awesome – FOREVER? the fact that i even WANT that is what’s messed up, not his birthday, just three months shy of the “norm”…

  8. Posted by: Andrea

    My son’s birthday is one week before the start of school, so we really wrestled with this question, and ultimately decided to start him in Kindergarten as a newly-minted 5 year old instead of waiting a year. So, basically he was a 4 year old. He was so tiny next to the other kids! I agree with Sarah’s post, that boys especially have a harder time sitting still, etc. and that it might be good to wait. That said, my son was so bored in preschool he was starting to act out, and was entirely ready for the schoolwork part of school – it was the social part and the rules that were hard. Especially when so many boys are now “red-shirted”, he was newly 5 with some boys turning 7 in his class! That’s a huge difference. If I had it to do over, I would probably have waited a year, but now that he’s in 3rd grade he has adapted and I think it will work out. I mean, of course it will – what other options are there? I did not know of any other preschool situations that I could have enrolled him in at the time. If you have a 4 year old and are looking at this issue – get to work now to find some options for your kid, before you’re down to the wire and can think of nothing else between daycare and kindergarten.

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