Thursday, September 02, 2010

Parenthood: Where My Beliefs Collide with Reality

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.


  1. I understand that because Tate's bday falls after the deadline sending him to school as a six year old isn't red shirting it's just following the regulations. It still feels wrong to me so I guess I'm in the wouldn't red shirt my kid camp. I'm not a fan of the over crowding (20+ five year olds to one teacher is too much imo) and over structuring of our local public school system (fcat ugh), so I am really looking at private school options. Something I never thought I would do with the exception of if there happened to be a fabulous montessori near by. So yeah, beliefs and reality collide a lot around here.

  2. Where did you ever get that notion that life was supposed to be "fair"? That's really quaint.

    I was the youngest kid in my class the entire time in school -- i don't think my folks ever thought about holding me back (red-shirting, I love it). I did fine, but like you said, that's a decision that should be made developmentally, not whether you think junior can make the starting five.

    I believe the gov't contract owes the people a basic level of education and healthcare. But both are commodities and if you want better versions of either (or both) the market should be allowed to supply that.

  3. Yeah, @SteveB, I'm a bit of a hopeless romantic in that regard... I don't necessarily think life has to be fair, but I do think that if we're going to tell ourselves that anyone can make it in our society, we need to be honest about whether we're really making that possible.

    I basically agree with you on what government owes us in terms of health care and education, and I'm fundamentally OK with the fact that money can always buy you better services... but only if the basic level guaranteed to all is decent. And I don't think our society does that in either case, although I think we probably do better than some people think. Public schools, for instance, aren't uniformly terrible, despite what some of the other parents at my day care think!

    I also think those of us who can provide our kids with so many opportunities need to be honest about the fact that we are indeed attempting to stack the deck in their favor. Because, of course we are. And there is nothing wrong with that- as long as we remember that there are other parents who would love to give their kids such opportunities, and maybe we should try to make access to such things a little less dependent on how much money your parents make. So, I can keep buying private Chinese lessons for Pumpkin, but I should also be willing to support (and pay for with my tax dollars!) language education in public schools.

  4. I think Finland has it right - no school until age 7. A kid is not ready for schooling until she can choose the dollar over the piece of candy. But we Americans insist on making 5 year olds learn to sit still, because working families can't afford to live on one income... Look, we don't even have room in a lot of our public schools these days for everyone to attend.

    We like to 'teach to the test' and keep changing the test so we can have good test scores to convince the crotchety old people who actually vote to keep paying taxes to support public schools. And we also live in a de facto segregated society, and most of the people with money want to keep it that way.

    In general, I think Americans and American parents with the means try to follow the beat of their own drum way too much. And often they don't realize they sound like shit and are drumming totally off beat. Sometimes we have to learn in life that we need to go along with certain things. That it is better for everyone when we do. That there are global standards and a competition going on. That 2+2 doesn't equal 5 if you're creative. That vaccines aren't going to cause your kid to have autism, etc etc.

    I'm thinking of a family I know who just decided to homeschool because they say the school district basically hates their kid and K was such a horrible time for their young 5 year old boy, who is truly a holy terror. Others say the kid needs an evaluation and the mother is too afraid of what a rage disorder diagnosis would say about her parenting, when it is just something we all think he son was born with, and that she is a really great mom, and it had nothing to do with the imbalance of chemicals in his brain. But 'the public schools' are the scapegoat. Kind of like "the media" is often a scapegoat.

    I also don't judge people for making different choices - I may think their logic is unsound, or they haven't made themselves aware of the current research etc. But by and large I do my thing and try not to get too caught up in feeling like everyone has to do what I do or like there is this One True Way. Even though I think I'm right. ;)


    Another vote for a noise generator of some sort. We used an air filter (I had it on hand because I have asthma and it is very good at clearing the air out whenever there are fires in our back country). This is an expensive noise generator, but it has three settings so I can make it loud if I need it to be and it also removes crud from the air. It doesn't travel well, though.

    Anyway, we no longer use it every night (we used to), but I still turn it on if I'm putting Pumpkin down and it is noisy in the house- i.e., if we have guests over or something. We used it every night until she was about 1, I think.

    However, the waking my not be noise related at all. Our sleep went seriously downhill at about 5 months, despite the white noise.

  6. paola6:16 PM

    My kids are both January babies and as the cut off here in Italy is Dec 31, they will be starting Primary School at 6 years 9 months.

    We had the choice to send Noah to Primary this September as they do take January kids if they are ready, but he is so not ready in so many respects. But even if he were, I would want him to stay another year at kinder simply because kids these days have so little time for play. And Italian Kinders are an excellent place to learn thru play.

    We have already decided that Zoe will not be rushed thru kinder either. She is a lot more mature than Noah was at her age and I can see she would definitely be ready at 5.5 but I have no intention of sending her to P. School ahead of time.

    'Red shirting' doesn't seem to be such a popular trend here though, probably for the reasons that you mentioned re the cost of child-care. Kinder is free and starts at 3, whereas child-care until 3 is incredibly expensive if you don't have a grandparent or a SAH parent to look after the child.

  7. @Nermine- we bought ours at Sears, I think. You can also buy online at Amazon. We have a Honeywell HEPA filter. The exact model doesn't matter, because ours is old and has been discontinued.

  8. As you know, I decided to send my son although he is among the youngest in his class. For now, I think it's the right choice for him, although it's complicated by the fact that other parents decided to hold back their kids--for valid reasons or not. I think my son is capable of doing the work of other 5 year olds in kindergarten. But is he capable of doing the work that 6 year olds are doing in kindergarten? I don't know.

    I haven't read PINK BRAIN, BLUE BRAIN (though now I would like to) though I have to say, just observing the developmental differences between my son (5) and my daughter (3) has been interesting. There's no question that my daughter's fine motor skills are more advanced than my son's were at her age and, in some cases, more advanced than his are now. I didn't expect that to be so true to stereotype.

  9. @Jacquie- one of the best things about the Pink Brain. Blue Brain book, in my opinion, is the way she makes you see how the gender differences we observe might come about without a large innate, biological difference. I found it to be an empowering book as a parent. Sure, there were some things that were a bit uncomfortable to read because I could recognize myself (the bit about mothers tending to underestimate their daughters' physical abilities, even as babies, for instance). But she also had a lot of good ideas for things we can do as parents to help our children develop all of their abilities.

    The big take home for me was this: the brain develops based in large part on the experiences it is given to learn from- so yes, on average, boys do tend to develop fine motor control a little later than girls, but that doesn't mean we should throw up our hands and say "lets just keep them our of school for an extra year". We can try to give them experiences to help those skills develop. Similarly, the largest sex-based difference is in spatial reasoning- girls tend to do less well at this. But that doesn't mean that girls just aren't going to be able to read maps (or do structural biology, as I was once told....) We can try to give our girls experiences to develop those skills.

    And we should always, always remember that the differences are between the averages, and even the biggest one (in spatial reasoning) is not actually that big. So our individual children may be good at things that on average, their sex is "bad" (or really, less good) at.

  10. I had not realized this was a trend since it seems quite popular here in AZ to start your kids as 4.8ers (as we teachers call them). The K teachers then have meetings about a month into the school year (going on now) for students they don't think are ready. Maybe this "redshirting" is more popular with parents who can easily and willingly afford regular daycare and aren't trying to use school as a daycare. Instead of older kids in our classes, we're sometimes dealing with students who are too young (developmentally) to understand the concepts we are trying to teacher.

  11. You speak my mind. Down to the fact that I will plan to send my kids to public schools, but will pull them out to put in private school if I feel we need to. Just like my parents did for me.

    I'm totally going to have to read Pink Brain, Blue Brain. I keep meaning to buy it, as it is right up my alley. Have you read any Deborah Tannen? What amazed me about the couple of books I read by her was how she points out the different ways we talk to boys vs. girls, from babyhood on! Having had my eyes opened, it's pretty obvious we are influencing their development along our pre-defined, gender-specific lines. I don't know if it's good or bad, so long as we aren't limiting them.

  12. Anonymous7:07 PM

    Arguments against redshirting:

    Add to that... That line between "everything is exciting" and "everything sucks" is real.

    Bored kids are more likely to act out. Kids can be out of synch with their peers if they're older, not just if they're younger. Or if they're at developmentally different stages even if the same age.

    Redshirting is not always a net positive as many parents say it is, and it is much easier to drop back a grade than it is to skip one if there's a mismatch.


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