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Would you “redshirt” your kindergartner?

Erin Zammett Ruddy

Redshirting is when parents hold their kids back from kindergarten so they can start school at age six instead of five. That way their child is older, bigger, and more mature—which allegedly gives him an edge both in the classroom and in life.


This fascinating (and disturbing if you ask me) practice was featured on 60 minutes Sunday night. If you have a kid born in the second half of the year you must watch this. Even if your kid was born in January you should watch. Even if you don’t have kids but were once a kid, watch. Seriously, it’s fascinating stuff. Plus, I want to hear your thoughts so we can discuss! I am particularly interested because this topic hits very close to home.


Redshirting is done for kids whose birthdays fall late in the year. Think about it: If your child is born in September or October, he will likely be less mature and possibly less kindergarten-ready than a classmate born in January. That’s just fact at that age. Alex’s birthday is September 2. If we send him to kindergarten in the fall (which we fully intend to do) he will definitely be one of the youngest. But isn’t that just the breaks? Or are we supposed to interfere? The kid is super smart but he’s also super unfocused (“He loses interest in a given project after about a minute and a half,” his preschool teacher told us at a conference last fall) and has major listening issues (i.e., he doesn’t).


To me redshirting wreaks of helicopter parenting. And it just seems…icky. And unfair: According to the segment, boys are twice as likely to be held back as girls, whites more than minorities and rich more than poor. I know there are some parents who “redshirt” because their child genuinely isn’t ready for kindergarten and would truly flounder if he started school too soon. I know some of these kids and I get it. I understand that reasoning. But the parents who do it so their kids will be already reading or bigger and more coordinated for sports (like the super annoying mom in the 60 minutes piece*) or just to give their kids this “edge” they talk about upsets me. I honestly hate that I even have to consider this but if everyone is doing it, will I be slighting my kid if I don’t? And what will being the youngest do for his confidence? One of the experts in the piece talks about research showing that if you’re relatively old in kindergarten you're more likely to be a high school leader or a sports team captain or club president.


The other thing that clouds my judgment on all of this is that I have read Outliers by   Malcolm Gladwell (he’s featured prominently in the segment). The book covers the birthday issue in a way that I will sum up for you here: Unless your kid is born in the first three months of the year, he’s effed. Here’s a quote from Gladwell:


“I'm talking about a concept called ‘cumulative advantage’ and that is the idea that a little extra nudge ahead when you're 6 can mean that you're slightly better positioned when you're 7, and that means you're slightly better positioned when you're 8, and so on. And you can see this pattern in one field after another.”


So if we don’t nudge Alex now we’re denying him greatness? My parental instinct is to interfere as little as possible and fall back on the fact that Nick and I are pretty good parents and our kids are pretty great. And yet here I am obsessing. Thanks, 60 minutes! Of course you have to take all of this research with a grain of salt—and know that there is plenty to say on the other side of this that shows redshirting as a negative for kids (they talk about that in the piece as well). But I do know how the birthday thing played out in my own family and it’s exactly in line with what the pro-redshirters say. I was born in January and was always one of the oldest in my class. I was an A student, a school leader and a competitive athlete. My sister, Meghan, was born in November and always the youngest in her class. To put it nicely, she was none of the things I mentioned above. (I will say this so that she doesn’t disown me: She is now a great leader and has a fantastic career and makes a lot more money than me so it all worked out in the end—but she has always said that she would have benefitted from being held back a year.) I can also think of a ton of examples in my own circle of friends who were young for their grade and still rock stars. So who knows…. Do you see how fascinating/complicated/annoying all of this is?


OK, please go watch the segment so we can talk about it—the transcript is also online if streaming video isn’t your thing (or if it’s frowned upon in your office!).


*In keeping with the competitive ickiness of this topic I just wanted to say that Alex, who's four, can already hit a ball better than that kid in the piece who got held back so he could excel in sports. So there!