One of the interesting things about becoming a parent has been the way it takes my abstract beliefs about what is right and fair in society and smashes them up against the biological imperative of wanting to give my children the best possible chance to succeed in life.
AskMoxie had a post on redshirting yesterday, which really highlighted this for me. For those who don't know, redshirting is the practice of delaying a child who is old enough and developmentally ready to start kindergarten. The idea is that the extra year will give the child an advantage in school and/or sports (yes, people really do this because of sports). To me, redshirting refers to kids who are five when the school year starts- I don't really think the term applies to kids with fall birthdays who would be starting school at 4 and turning 5- I guess I think that parents of those kids have always had to decide about when to start kindergarten. But now, parents of kids with summer- and even spring- birthdays are delaying their kids, too, so that they start kindergarten at the age of 6.
The practice is growing in popularity, and it makes me uncomfortable for a couple of reasons. First, it is usually boys who are "redshirted" and the reason given is that boys' motor skills and verbal skills and just plain ability to sit still develop later than girls, and that schools aren't set up to handle these differences and so the boys are at a disadvantage. I don't think the science supports this- as Lise Eliot argues convincingly in her book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, any innate, truly biological differences are small- basically, for all of these skills (including things like spatial reasoning that girls are supposed to be "bad" at), the evidence shows large, overlapping bell curves, with midpoints not far apart. Any individual child of one sex could be more or less advanced than an individual child of another sex. There are very few developmental differences that seem genuinely meaningful.
And even when the difference might be meaningful, it is far from clear that it is an inborn, biological difference. There is a lot of fascinating evidence that even parents who think they are treating children of different sexes the same treat them with subtle differences- and because of the plastic nature of brain development, these subtle differences in treatment and any small truly biological differences get amplified, as we notice "hey, my daughter likes stickers!" and give her more stickers, but not legos, or other toys that encourage spatial reasoning. And we say "hey, my son likes trucks", so he gets trucks, and not the toys like stickers that encourage fine motor control. And before we know it, we have common knowledge that girls can't read maps and boys aren't as good at writing.
I'll admit that this might bother me more than it should. I am a woman working in a male-dominated field, and Ihave received my share of jaw-droppingly sexist comments from colleagues over the years. I've been told that I am biologically inferior with respect to my chosen field, and if I'm not, I must be an outlier. These comments are hurtful and, particularly when directed at children, self-fulfilling. There is quite a bit of evidence that children tend to live up (or down) to our expectations. So why would we create expectations that our boys can't succeed in kindergarten, particularly when the science supporting these ideas is actually pretty inconclusive?
Of course, some kids really do develop more slowly- and it may even be true that this is more likely to be the case for boys than girls. So I don't judge parents who decide to hold their kids back a year (although the evidence Lise Eliot summarizes in her book indicates that the decision may be misguided in many cases). But I also don't think it has to be this way. I think we can set up our school systems to handle all but the most extreme outliers on the developmental spectrum. In fact, I think that morally, we must do that.
The reason I think that setting up our school systems to handle kids who develop more slowly is a moral imperative is closely related to the second reason redshirting makes me uncomfortable: redshirting is primarily an upper middle class phenomenon. It takes money to decide to keep your kid out of school for an extra year- you either have to pay for day care or have one parent stay out of the paid work force. Less affluent families don't really have this option for dealing with a kid who seems to be a bit slower to develop those key kindergarten-ready skills- or if they do, it is a far bigger challenge for them than it is for a richer family.
If we decide that the way to handle kids who are slower to learn how to sit still is to just keep them out of school for another year, then we are piling additional advantages on the kids who are already starting life with more advantages than many of their peers. The squirmy son of a wealthy family will stay out of school for an extra year, while the equally squirmy son of a working class family will be sent to kindergarten and set on a path to struggle in school. Surely we can do better as a society than that?
In this respect, my unease about redshirting is very similar to my ambiguous feelings about private schools. I don't really have a problem with them, and I think parents should have the right to send their kids to the school that is best for them. But I can't escape the fact that if private schools solve an educational problem, they solve it primarily for wealthy families, and I want to live in a society that is more fair than that. If we want to believe that anyone, from any background, can succeed in our society, then we have to do our best to level the playing field and give all kids the same educational opportunities. As things stand right now, a kid from a poor family who makes it in this country has usually worked far, far harder and overcome far more challenges than a kid from a wealthier family.
Here's where the collision with biology comes in: I truly believe all of this. However, I also know without any doubt that if Petunia, my October birthday girl, doesn't seem ready for kindergarten when it is time for her to go, I'll probably hold her back. And while I intend to send my kids to public school, I also know that if things don't seem to be working out for them there, I'll pull them out and put them in a private school. So I truly can't judge any parents who make these choices for their kids. All I can hope is that those of us who are lucky enough to be able to make these choices will remember that there are other parents, who love their kids just as much as we love ours, who have no choices, and we should work to fix our system so that it gives all kids the start in life that they deserve.