As many of you probably know, “redshirting” is the practice of parents holding their children back from kindergarten so they can start school at age 6. The purpose is to allow a child to be physically bigger and perhaps more mature than his peers. The idea behind it is that this will give a child an advantage over others who are younger.
Recently, “60 Minutes” had a segment devoted to this issue in which Morley Safer, the CBS correspondent, said, “. . . you don’t exactly cheat, but you game the system.” A mother interviewed during the program answered by saying, “I don’t think it’s really cheating the system. I’ll do whatever I think within my realm as a parent to make sure that my child is as prepared as he can be for the life challenges.”
Another mother said, “Yes, I think that there is a subtle message that we’re going to have an advantage over everyone else.” Examples of the hoped-for advantage were a child being older and a leader rather than younger and a follower, being ahead of the group socially and academically, and being bigger and better in sports. What also emerged from the interviews was the pressure parents feel to do this, the pressure to be competitive. Almost the implication that you are not a “good mother” if you don’t give your child this supposed advantage.
Also interviewed on the program was Malcolm Gladwell, whose book “Outliers” provided much of the impetus for “redshirting.” He makes the point, drawn from research, that kids who are the eldest in their class have a small advantage throughout their schooling history both in sports and academics. The theory is that if you are older you will be better than your peers from the outset, and will attract more interest and attention from coaches and teachers. Supposedly, there is a cumulative effect which means that the initial advantage carries over from year to year.
Of course, there are as many negatives that can be attributed to children being the oldest as there are to their being the youngest in the class. Children who are older and bigger may attract more attention, but it also can be negative attention. Being oldest and biggest doesn’t always mean being the brightest. Yet more may be expected from such a child both academically and behaviorally, and can lead to feelings of failure rather than self-confidence.
At the other end of the scale, children who are ahead of others in the class may become bored and restless if the curriculum is no longer challenging. There is a good example in the biography of Steve Jobs, who because he was ahead was so bored in kindergarten that he became a behavior problem. Of course, not every bright child is Steve Jobs, but many children do better with new challenges that engage their interest more readily than material they have already mastered.
Other research shows less achievement rather than more among children who are held back from starting school, and also more dropouts. All of this points to the fact that children are different from each other and develop at different rates. The question of whether a child will do better being among the oldest in his group or the youngest, is clearly a matter of knowing the individual child, rather than fitting everyone into some overarching theory. And besides, if this practice were to be universally applied, and everyone did it, any hypothetical advantage obviously would be cancelled out.
There are a number of disturbing aspects to this controversy. Perhaps most disturbing is the statement that mothers “don’t exactly cheat, but game the system.” A connection is made to a “countrywide epidemic of hyperparenting”, with the implication that parents are doing something unfair. The point is made that boys are twice as likely to be entered school late as girls, Whites more than minorities, and rich kids more than poor.
Once again, mothers are being criticized for a problem they didn’t create, for which they are being made to feel responsible, and are trying to fix in their own way. First there is the element of competitiveness – as if it is an undesirable characteristic parents are unfairly injecting into education. But what is the “race to the top” if not a focus on competition, rewarding the achievement in education based largely on test results? And what of all the pressure to compete with China, and the blame placed on American parenting for a decline in academic achievement?
Then there is the element of fairness. Are parents to blame for the lack of educational quality and opportunity that exists in our society, for the absence of the funds needed to restore our education system? Statistics show that only three percent of students in the top colleges come from families in the bottom income quarter of American society. Children from affluent families have many advantages all along the way. Given the inequality in available resources – the competition for better schools – is it any surprise that parents would try to do whatever may seem necessary to give their own children a leg up.
As with other problem areas in our society, parents are the ones held accountable. But parents are neither the problem nor the solution. Let’s pay attention to what really needs to be fixed.