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What is Redshirting?

Are you thinking about either holding back your child from starting Kindergarten or enrolling your child on the earlier side this fall? I am with you on this boat and remain rocking in both directions on any given week. I’m sure you have heard of those who intentionally hold back their five-year olds, also referred to as “redshirting,” for the main purpose of giving them an advantage in sports or academics. The term comes from college athletes who engage in delayed entry as a means of enhancing their status. I admit, I’ve been obsessed with gathering information about this issue, as well as talked to parents with varying responses; I’ve gathered some objective and subjective thoughts on this topic that I hope will help steer you in your right direction, not the right direction.

We obviously didn’t check the school calendar for smart planned parenthood: Both my kids, a girl and a boy, have borderline cutoff birthdays, in September and August. In Washington State, it’s a strict August 31 cutoff. While age 4 1/2, I will have to pay for a child psychologist to give her a lengthy, expensive assessment in which she must pass at an equivalency of age five years, six months (why couldn’t they just say “5 1/2”?) in all areas of readiness, even though she’s a year shy of the suggested standard for testing purposes.

I’m almost sure she’s ready: She is verbally expressive and has a knack for language, reads sight word books and so on. As a current four year-old, she is perfectly socially and academically compatible with other five-year olds. In today’s day and age where schools are pressured with test scores, administrators do not like younger students entering their classrooms. It’s not only more work for teachers in general (lest they should help a few kids button their coats), but often, they bring down the school’s average test scores and ratings. This veers into the murky political realm where reputation and school funding are in the mix. During a recent kindergarten orientation session I attended, the principal expressed that it is not uncommon to have an 18-month spread between the youngest and the oldest students, and she seemed to be in favor of the older students. I had visions of my little petite but sassy daughter standing next to six year-olds who view these little kids as what they are–younger and shorter. This unfortunate form of Darwinism probably starts in the preschool years, and it only gets worse with age.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers

Regarding this topic, everyone cites the famous section in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers about the Canadian professional hockey team. In short, he found a remarkable correlation between the team’s top-ranked athletes and their relatively early January or February birthdays, compared to other players whose birthdays were later. Granted, much of their training occurred in the youngest grades where physical size directly influenced their placement on the training circuit, already giving them an advantage. I’m pretty certain my daughter will not become a professional Canadian hockey player. Unless you feel that this study is closely relevant to your child, I would personally take this study with a grain of salt. I know for a fact that many–possibly thousands–have used his study as a basis for redshirting their would-be kindergartners.

Could There Actually Be Harm In Redshirting?

So could we actually be doing harm in redshirting our children? Some researchers believe so. Depending on location, 10-20% of kindergarten-age kids in 2011 were held back from starting kindergarten. Brain scientists Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt claim that the academic playing field between younger and older students level out by fifth or sixth grade. In a large-scale study of 26 Canadian schools, they noted that the younger students made larger strides in improvement than their older peers. They even say that by high school, the older children are often “less motivated and perform less well.” While I understand the intention, I have mixed emotions about this tendency to hold back a child so he will be a “leader of the class, not a follower.” I get it, but I can name at  least a dozen friends with late birthdays who were among the youngest in their class; these men and women are now leaders in their industries, were at the top of their class, are high achievers, and are among the smartest people I know. My theory is that being educated around slightly older peers pushed them to succeed and adapt well. If you’re reading this, you know who you are.

Boys And Girls

With all of this said, as a mom who would enroll my four year-old into kindergarten if I could, I risk becoming a hypocrite. Yes, I will probably hold back my son, who will actually turn five a week before the cutoff. We are not doing it because we think he is slated to become an athletic star; like everyone says, little boys and girls are just plain different at this age. As his parents, we have a strong feeling that giving our son another year will be the right thing for him to be in line with the average classmate. From the experience of having two different children who represent different paths, this statement is trite but true: each child is unique and has different needs. I guess I just don’t like being told what to do.