At what age should kids start school? The answer is usually pretty cut and dried. School boards set the guidelines and that means kids start first grade when they’re 6 years old.
But some parents are stretching the rules, worried their children aren’t ready, or holding their kids back as part of a master plan to make their children leaders when they’re older. Six is now the age that some kids start kindergarten, which makes things particularly interesting for my 4-year-old son, Charlie, who will also start kindergarten this fall.
Holding Back Hurts the System
According to a study published this spring by the University of Missouri, holding back kids does more harm than good. “Requiring children to repeat a grade is not only expensive for parents and school districts, but it also can affect children’s self-esteem and their ability to adjust in the future,” said Francis Huang, assistant professor in the MU College of Education.
This reinforces the results of a study published in 1997 titled “Increased Behavior Problems Associated With Delayed School Entry and Delayed School Progress,” which found there were “increased rates of behavior problems” associated with “old-for-grade” students who’d been held back.
Instead, Huang suggests that teachers need to adapt instruction based on the maturity and ability of all students. “The youngest students in a classroom can be nine to 12 months less mature than their oldest peers,” said Huang. “Since older kindergarteners can have as much as 20 percent more life experience than their younger classmates, teachers need to meet students where they are developmentally and adjust instructions based on a student’s ability. Studies have shown that only a small number of teachers modify classroom instruction to deal with a diverse set of students.”
And when some parents hold their kids back, while others are going with the flow, the age range in a classroom becomes even wider.
Redshirting for Athletic Advantage Is Even Worse
Charlie will be 4 years old when he enters kindergarten this year. Next year, at the start of Grade 1, he’ll be 5 years and 8 months old. He’ll start Grade 12 at 16, and finish when he’s 17. In prep schools across the US, where sports matter, some seniors are turning 19 midway through their school year.
They don’t call it redshirting in the posh prep school circuit, though, they call it reclassifying. “It used to be if you got held back, it was a scarlet letter, something you would never want,” one Bethesda lacrosse parent told Deadspin. “Now, it’s being done as a badge of honor.”
If your kid gets held back, it means the school sees them as a star and wants to hold on to their eight semesters of athletic ability for when they are bigger, faster, and stronger. Private schools do this regularly. At one DC-area school, a parent who wished to remain anonymous claimed that as many as half of the eighth grade class has been held back.
Public schools, funded by government, are loathe to have kids repeat a year and cost the system extra dollars. So parents aren’t waiting until high school to have kids repeat a year, they’re holding them back before they even start, making some kindergarteners 7 years old.
Why? Many parents are doing it for the scholarships. They hold their kids back so they’ll succeed on the field, get in to all star programs, get more playing time, and have a shot at getting a free ride to college, and maybe even the pros.
School has become like pro-cycling – a sport where athletes tried so hard to find every way they could to get around the rules that virtually the entire peloton took a banned substance of some sort.
Lance Armstrong could steadfastly claim he wasn’t cheating for so long, because he didn’t believe that he was. “I didn’t invent the culture, but I didn’t try to stop the culture,” he told Oprah in his January 2013 confessional interview. “I looked up the definition of cheat. The definition of cheat is to gain an advantage over a rival or foe. I didn’t do that. I viewed it as a level playing field.” And so it has become for parents. Many who redshirt their kids don’t consider it cheating, they consider it keeping up with the rest of the playing field.
“There’s no social reason, emotional reason, or academic reason they’re [redshirting],” said the anonymous parent. “It’s to have an advantage physically over everybody else. It’s institutionalized cheating, and it’s everywhere, and the thing that’s troubling is everybody’s closing their eyes.”
When Everybody Cheats, No One Wins
Despite all this, people are still holding their kids back. They do it so the kids are bigger and get more playing time, so the kids are older and have more leadership qualities, so the kids are smarter and have an easier time in school.
But here’s the rub: if everyone is doing it, you lose your advantage. It becomes equal all over again. Sure, redshirting can give you an advantage when you’re the outlier, but once everyone jumps on the trend, all the kids are back with their peer group except instead of being in first grade, they’re in kindergarten.
I get that every parent needs to do what’s right for their kids. While there may be a set of “rules” in life, they are not one size fits all. There will always be exceptions. But the problem arises when the massaging of rules becomes trendy, instead of the occasional necessary exception.
A stark few actually need to be held back, but once the ball starts rolling, others jump on board. They see the advantages it provides for one child and apply it in different circumstances. Suddenly the older kid who is held back is no longer the outlier; instead my young son, playing by the rules, is left alone as the youngest in his class.
I’ll be honest: my bias against redshirting is personal. I was 3 weeks younger than Charlie will be throughout my school year. Charlie has an early January birthday, I have a late one. I graduated school at 17, I was valedictorian. I was the smallest one trying out for the school hockey team, so I switched to wrestling, where I could pick on people my own size.
I figured out school just fine. I only wish other parents would give their kids the same chance to rise above and succeed, instead of cushioning them (and putting others at a disadvantage) through their fear of failure.