Remember when we were kids, and smart students were sometimes skipped a grade? Now, you're more likely to find a bright child intentionally held a year, to gain a competitive edge over younger classmates.
The practice of academic redshirting—delaying entrance to kindergarten by a year—is weighing on my mind this month as we're deciding whether to register my youngest child, with a late-September birthday, for kindergarten next year. (While kindergarten cutoff dates around the country vary as widely as July 31st to January 1st, the cutoff in our district is October 1st.) From the month my daughter started pre-kindergarten, it was brought to my attention that because she was the youngest in her class (she just turned four this fall), we might want to explore the "fours-plus" class at our school next year, instead of proceeding with what we'd always planned, which is to enroll her in the public half-day kindergarten. Her teacher and I had a discussion about my daughter's difficulty using scissors. (And to her credit, the teacher couched the conversation with, "I know it's early in the year....") Just as I fretted whether the scissors-struggle might be something to put on the "not ready for kindergarten" mental checklist, though, my girl got it, and has spent many afternoons at home happily destroying construction paper with her safety scissors. That's part of the problem with trying to make a decision for the rest of my child's academic life right now: Kids change so rapidly at this age. Am I supposed to base my decision about her kindergarten readiness on a skill she might master next week, and perfectly in line with her age, even though everyone else in the room is older?
I suppose I should be grateful to even have the option to send my child ahead or to hold her back a year, when some major public-school districts, like Chicago and New York City, have sharply cracked down on the practice. But I wish I didn't have to decide. Frankly, I was looking forward to being released from the preschool bill that I pay now. I wish instead of deciding whether my child is ready for kindergarten, kindergarten could be ready for her, and that teachers were working with a class of generally same-age peers, not kids in the same class who may be 18 months apart. I almost wish our local school system didn't give parents so much leeway to make the decision, so my daughter won't potentially be finishing out elementary school with boys who are shaving. (The most likely kids to be redshirted are boys with summer birthdays.)
Also, there's something a little gross about the thought of holding my bright and capable daughter back a year so she can charge her way academically and socially past other kids. Keeping her back to give her the "gift of time" feels like a vote of no confidence in her, like I knew she wouldn't be able to succeed, before she even had a chance to show me. We all know hyper-competitive parents who will seize every advantage for their kids they can get. ("Why wouldn't you?" an alpha mom once told me.) However, most of the parents I know who have had to make this decision aren't that way—they struggled with the choice and only have their children's best interests at heart. There's so much pressure on parents—we all hear the same scary news about kindergarten being "the new first grade." And so, we talk about it with their teachers, with our spouses, with our friends—on and on.
Adding to my overall discomfort with the practice of redshirting is this: It's an option for those with the resources to do it. Research from Connecticut's department of education shows a redshirting rate of just 2 percent in poorer districts, and 27 percent in wealthier ones. One California study showed parents who redshirted their kids earned 40 percent more than those who don't.
However, in spite of all the worry that younger kids will struggle in kindergarten, there's another side to the debate that I don't believe we hear nearly enough: research that shows older kids getting bored and restless with an unchallenging curriculum and peers whom they find immature. Studies show whatever gains are achieved by redshirting disappear by the end of elementary school, and then disadvantages may even begin to appear. (This is not to suggest one way is clearly right, just that there are many points to consider.) To read more about the possible downsides of holding a child back a year, this article in Slate and this op-ed from The New York Times are good reads.
At Parents, we asked families who made the decision how they came to their conclusions about holding their children back a year or not. I'm re-reading this article myself, trying to keep perspective about redshirt hysteria (for every parent I know who'd held a child back, there seems to be another who sent her summer- or fall-birthday child to kindergarten "on time" with no regrets), and enjoying my child's fleeting early-school years in the meantime.
And while it's an uncomfortable idea for many, if there is no very strong reason to hold my daughter back from kindergarten, I can accept that at the end of the day, somebody—maybe her—has to be the youngest.
Gail O'Connor is a senior editor at Parents and a mom of three.