Delaying entry for kindergarten is common—and controversial. But it was the right decision for our family.
Credit: Shutterstock

Four years ago, my wife and I decided to delay our son's entry into kindergarten, and it was one of the best decisions we've ever made—not necessarily for him, but most definitely for us. The practice of postponing kindergarten, usually for students with summer or later-in-the year birthdays, is known as "redshirting" and it means that some students are 6 when they start kindergarten as opposed to 5.

Parents opposed to redshirting argue that older students are given unfair advantages over the kids starting "on time" in terms of physical size and maturity, and that the advantages pay off in better grades. There are many parents who feel that redshirting is a suburban fad cooked up by overly competitive parents to give their kids an edge over the competition, an edge that some people claim extends to adulthood and potentially affects future earnings.

But four years ago, as it came time for my wife and I to decide whether our son should be the youngest member of his grade, or the oldest, we had never heard the term "redshirting." We had no idea there was a public debate raging over the decision we found ourselves confronted with. Luckily, my wife and I were on the same page. With our son's June birthday, we decided to delay his entry into kindergarten. Instead of finishing his first year of kindergarten still as a five year old, he would actually start the grade as a 6-year-old.

Our decision wasn't based on some mercenary metric involving better grades or getting a leg up on the 5-year-old competition. It was kindergarten after all; it's difficult to feel competitive about creating Thanksgiving hand-turkeys and making the letter B with glitter glue. I mean, kids don't even get real grades in kindergarten. When our son came home with an O on his report card, we couldn't figure out if it stood for Okay, Outstanding, or Odd. Whatever it meant, we weren't too fussed about it.

Plus, considering that we also had a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old, we were lucky if we could envision what we might be eating for dinner, let alone take the time to contemplate what impact our decision might have on our kid's long-term academic success, attainment of advanced degrees, and his lifetime earnings forecast.

No, our decision was about being cautious. Admittedly, perhaps we were being overly cautious.

Before our son started school, he had a community of friends at our local park who all happened to be eight to 15 months older. While he was excellent at keeping up with them in one-on-one situations, when the whole group got together he looked lost and overwhelmed. We had heard stories from parents in similar situations, who had started their summer-birthday sons "on time" only to discover they needed to hold them back to repeat a grade later. We didn't want to put him in that position.

As a late-spring birthday myself, I remembered my own struggles trying to keep up with kids who were older than me. In most social situations I was the youngest, and the desire to prove I belonged socially overshadowed my interest in academics. I didn't want that for my son.

My wife and I aren't normally overprotective parents, but when it came to this decision we saw no reason not to err on the side of caution.

It's been four years, and honestly, I don't know if redshirting has made a difference in his education.

I can tell you that my kid loves school in a way I could never begin to imagine. Unlike what my parents had to endure during my time in school, we've never had tears during morning drop-off, we've never had to force him to go to school under protest, and it's never taken two hours to accomplish 20 minutes of homework. School has been a relatively easy and enjoyable experience in our household.

I can tell you that he is confident and independent when it comes to social situations. He doesn't succumb to peer pressure, and his teachers have told us repeatedly he is a leader in the classroom. Maybe it sounds like bragging, but I'm sure fellow parents can understand how good it is to hear that.

What I can't tell you, though, is if any of that stuff has to do with redshirting. There is a strong possibility that none of what I've described above has anything to do with giving our son an extra year. He may have entered kindergarten "on time" as a 5-year-old and found himself in the exact same place by third grade.

I don't know.

The reason I say it was one of the best decisions we've made is because of the effect it had on us as parents. My wife and I believe in a non-interventionist approach to parenting. We believe our kids have to make their own mistakes, fight their own battles, and clean up their own messes. We only interfere as a very last resort. For Mom and Dad to get involved somebody better be about to lose an eye or accidentally blow up a gas station. We want our kids to be self-sufficient, independent thinkers.

When I would watch my kid get overwhelmed by his group of older friends on the playground, I wouldn't rush to his rescue. I would just watch and let him try to figure out how to make it work on his own.

In those situations, when you watch your kid struggling, or when you know he could get hurt, it takes every ounce of strength not to rush to his aid, not to try to make it better for him. It goes against every instinct not to protect your kid, even if you know he can probably handle it himself with minimal bruising. That feeling is especially powerful when you are getting ready to send him out into the world on his own for the first time.

If we had sent him to kindergarten as the youngest person in his class in a Philadelphia public school, I have no doubt that our resolve would have cracked. We would have turned into helicopter parents, gumming up every misunderstanding between our son and his teacher, calling other parents over minor schoolyard altercations, and, with the best of intentions, trampling on his ability to problem-solve for himself. Our dearly held parenting philosophy would have crumbled under the weight of our nerves. By being cautious or overprotective with that one decision, a decision he was essentially unaware of, we've had the confidence to give him much more freedom in the long run.

By letting him gain a couple pounds and sneak in a few more months of maturity, we were reinforcing our own armor to protect ourselves from our own worst impulses.

In his four years in school we've never had to intervene with other students, parents, or teachers on his behalf. It has not always been easy for him. He's come home with concerns about teachers and students. He's come home looking like he's struggling, like he's about to be overwhelmed. Just like when he was a little kid on the playground, it takes every ounce of willpower not to jump in. Without the extra year, I'm not sure my wife and I would have gained those extra ounces of willpower.

He knows we're always here to advise him and listen to him, but he also knows he has to figure it all out for himself. And he does. Even as early as kindergarten he has been his own advocate. He has used his own voice to resolve his own, sometimes major—at least by kindergarten standards—disagreements and misunderstandings with friends and even his teachers. As a result, we have a kid who has the strength and ability to always stand up for not just himself but for others as well.

Look, someone has to be the oldest kid in the class, and I feel no shame in saying: I'm glad we decided to let it be our kid.

Aaron Traister is an accomplished writer and part time dog walker living in Philadelphia with his wife and two kids. His hobbies include boxing, antiquing, and pizza making.