Kindergarten: Holding Back Versus The Gift of Time

The lights are out. It’s the middle of the night. I can hear Justin laying next to me breathing the deep breaths of a sound sleep. I look at the clock and it’s 4:30AM. The last time I looked at the clock it was 3:30AM. Insomnia for me means only one thing: worry. Parental worry.  The issue that has me wide awake tonight is whether to start Carter in kindergarten in the fall or have him wait a year and start when he’s six years old. Children entering kindergarten must be five years old by October 1st. Carter has a late July birthday.

We hadn’t given the issue any serious thought until we moved and noticed that many of the parents of boys were talking about the topic of starting their child in kindergarten a year later. Add to that a passing comment from one of Carter’s preschool teachers and the discussion crept into our ongoing conversations until it is now the only thing we talk about after the kids go to bed. To further torture our parental angst on the subject, we’ve been doing a ton of research (because that’s what we do…we tend to overdo it when it comes to applying our engineer and lawyer brains to our parenting decisions). Seriously. I didn’t do this much research for anything in my legal education or career. Our research ranges from the very scientific, consulting studies and experts in childhood development and education to asking random strangers and everything in between. This has been fascinating…and exhausting. There are a ton of opinions on this topic. And if you want to see a room full of parents (at least around here) with four-year-olds get animated, ask about the topic of starting your kid late for kindergarten. Not since a conversation (re: heated debate) at a playdate when Carter was a baby about the use of bumpers in a crib have a I seen so much veiled parental criticism.

The more I talk to people the more people pull me aside and say something along the lines of, “Let me know what else you find out. I’d love to know what you hear and decide.” So, I will do the former, but I can’t do the latter just yet.

Here is a summary of the discussions in our household and some of the information we have learned. We share it not with the intention of acting like we have an answer (we don’t) but with the intention of sharing our experience so far in case it may help someone else.

Before I get to the pros and cons, it’s worth noting the vocabulary that arose during our discussions. Many people think of waiting to start a child in kindergarten until they are six years old as “holding them back.” This term has been replaced in many circles with the slightly more positive term, “redshirting.” But another, even more positive phrase is used as well: “giving your child and family the gift of time.” This last one cracks me up, but it IS an important distinction in mentality and how a parent and family frame the decision. The latter two terms tend to be used by educators, many of them avoiding the phrase “holding back” altogether. In my mind, the difference between the phrases can be summed up as this: If we view starting our child at the age of six as “holding him back” then that’s not the right decision. “Holding him back” implies he is being prevented from reaching his full potential in some way. But if we feel a sense of relief when we think of it as a “gift of time,” we might be on the right track.

<Sigh.> Ok. Let’s get on with the pros and cons. These are largely filtered through our lenses which means we have a boy with a birthday roughly two months ahead of the cutoff but he has a temperament that makes him slow to warm up in new situations, he’s very sensitive to his own emotions and the emotions of others, and is not a “rough and tumble” kind of boy. We are sending him to a public school in a close-knit community with high expectations of their students, but it suffers from many of the same challenges affecting most public schools (primarily budget constraints and large class sizes, relative to private schools). Oh, and he’s our firstborn and we over-think everything with him.

Pros of Giving Carter Another Year

1-Confidence and Leadership. With an extra year of preschool/pre-K, he will gain more confidence in his abilities to navigate new situations. His temperament isn’t going to change but in another year, he will have learned more tools for managing his emotions and reactions giving him more confidence and potentially supporting him to take on more leadership roles.

2-Size matters for boys and this will give him an advantage should he decide to participate in athletics. Malcolm Gladwell talks about this extensively in his book “Outliers” and looks at data for NHL hockey players. And even if he doesn’t participate in athletics, size matters in social interactions with boys.

3-Independence. Most kindergarten classrooms, especially in public schools, are populated with a wide range of abilities, leaving teachers pressed for enough time (and sometimes lacking in skill) to address the individual needs of each child. Our child is one who thrives on being connected to his teacher, something that may be difficult to do in his school. Another year will give him a chance to grow a stronger sense of independence and able to manage being in a bigger, busier classroom without feeling the need to compete for the teacher’s attention.

4-Everyone’s doing it. More and more parents are red-shirting their kids (at least in our district). The result is an increase in the average age in the classroom which will increase the age gap between Carter and his classmates if we start him on time. One teacher we spoke to said that in some kindergarten classrooms as many as 40% of the boys start at the age of six. So why not wait a year and let Carter be one of the oldest? As one friend pointed out, when it comes to school yard and locker room banter, size and intelligence can be debated but age is irrefutable.

5-Regret. None of the parents we talked to who waited a year said they regretted their decision but it was not uncommon for us to hear from parents who started their child on time say they wished they had waited, and a few even said it was the worst decision they’ve made as a parent. We make all kinds of decisions for our kids everyday. For this decision to rank at the top of some parents’ lists underscores how important it can be for some kids and families.

6-Ready now, but not later. The real issue is not early education, but what happens in middle school, high school and college? Carter may be ready for kindergarten now, but will he be ready to go to college when he just turned 18? Will he be able to withstand peer pressure (at best) or bullying (at worst) around things like driving, drinking, sex and drugs? Some will counter-argue that those issues come down to parenting and community but I think parents of teenagers will tell you parenting is important but peer influence is a nasty, wicked and fiercely strong beast to do battle with.

7-Older and wiser. Much is expected of kids in high school, especially those college-bound (an expectation of ours, but not a requirement). We heard from a handful of parents with kids in high school say how hard it is to watch their kid struggle with the pressures of high school and college prep and how they wished they had given them one more year to have more emotional maturity to deal with these pressures. The Bay Area was rocked a couple of years ago with a rash of teenage suicides in a wealthy, high-achieving tight-knit community. It was a wake-up call to parents that the pressures felt by high school students is very real, and at times, unbearable. And for us, this is the most persuasive argument for waiting. Will it guarantee that Carter will not struggle? Absolutely not, but it stacks the odds in his favor.

8-It’s not him, it’s us. Waiting gives our family another year to avoid the rigamarole of school life: the daily drive to and from school; being beholden to district vacation schedules; the politics of teachers, parents, school administrators and district administrators; and dreaded testing. Another year of letting our child play and explore and experience the world (not that this stops when they start school but it is restricted). And the gift of time works on the other side, too. When it’s time for them to go to college, they will be older and this may help ease some of the inevitable parental angst about sending our baby off to college.

Cons of Giving Our Child Another Year

1-There is no real academic advantage. Po Bronson spends a great deal of time talking about this in his book, “Nurture Shock.” Fascinating stuff. Bottom line is that by second grade, any academic advantage detected disappears. Further, some studies have shown there is actually a disadvantage academically and socially for kids who start when they are six. In essence, they truly were “held back” and are frustrated by being with kids who are younger, smaller, less mature and not as developed in their abilities in those early years. The child responds by being bored, disengaging and/or feeling badly about their own abilities because they feel like they are not as capable as they really are.

2- Size doesn’t matter. And to the extent it does, maybe we don’t want it to anyway. I have no idea what, if any, sports Carter will play. Let’s just say he is not a natural athlete and does not have a natural affinity for any sports, yet.  And if we hold him back, great, he’s big for his class but if he plays club sports, in all likelihood he will play with kids in the grade above him (most club sports use birth date, not school grade to form teams), missing out on some of the benefits of socializing with his classmates outside of school. Justin and I both played soccer competitively in high school and recreationally well-into our late twenties. We understand the benefit of participating in sports but we are confident Carter can have a meaningful athletic experience without being the biggest kid on the field/court/etc. We don’t have any aspirations of him being a professional hockey player (sorry, Malcolm Gladwell) or any other sport for that matter. For us, holding him back for an athletic advantage just isn’t convincing, at all.

3-There’s a cut-off for a reason. Why have an age cut-off if no one is going to abide by it? Starting our child late is just adding to the burdens we place on teachers, especially in those early years, to teach to a wide range of abilities. The range of abilities from young five-year-olds to six-year-olds can be extreme.  Expecting our teachers to make sure every child thrives in that range is unrealistic. We don’t want to be part of the problem.

4-Teacher’s have a job and it’s different than our jobs as parents. A teacher friend of mine said it best: It’s the teacher’s job to address the disparity in the abilities of his or her students, not the parents’. If the child meets the age cutoff, start them. Period. Teachers are trained to understand that the abilities of the children in their classroom will vary widely, especially in those early years. Let teachers do their jobs (and see #3).

5- Building character. We will never create the perfect educational experience for our child, and we don’t want to. The best thing we can do for our children is to let them struggle, flounder and fail. No one learns anything from taking the easy road. Being young for his class may always be a challenge for Carter (or maybe not) but it can also be an opportunity to, yes here it comes, build character, the holy grail of all parenting goals. There’s something about waiting a year that feels a little like helicopter parenting. It is important that our child learn that school and education take work and a lot of self-motivation. He must learn that there will always be someone better, bigger, smarter, older, stronger, etc. than he is and he will need to know how to be successful and achieve his goals anyway.  So far, this is the most convincing argument for us.

6- Not everyone wants to be class president. Our child doesn’t need to be a leader. He needs to be happy and know how to operate in and contribute to this world. I’m not sure his natural temperament is one that will make him a leader in the traditional sense of the word anyway. That may wait until later in life, if that’s a role he decides he likes.

7- The NAEYC supports starting on time. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) generally holds the position that the only defensible criteria for determining entry into kindergarten is age. Their position statement and research does a wonderful job of describing some of the nuances and challenges but in the end, they come down on the side of starting on time.

NAEYC’s position statement:

And a nice summary of the issue with references to studies:

8. If not kindergarten, then what? Carter’s current preschool doesn’t have an option for him to stay another year. Ideally he would be placed in a program that bridges between the play-based curriculum he’s been attending the last three years and the more traditional academic setting of kindergarten. But assuming we can find a program, it won’t be free. Not even close.

Of course, there are devilish details that can’t be summarized here like taking into account the very real strains our public schools are under. Like the unpredictability of individual teachers, their abilities, experience and resources. Like the unpredictability of the changing landscape of our individual school district (the details of which are irrelevant for the purpose of this blog).

One friend told me that we might be over-thinking this decision. I had a few friends tell us we were “crazy” for thinking Carter isn’t ready. These friends may very well be right but we still can’t help ourselves. Chances are this decision will end up not being a very big, or important one. But we know that there is the possibility that this could be “the worst parenting mistake” of our lives so we’re gonna over-think it and keep talking about it.

The bottom line is that we will make the choice that is best for our family and for Carter. Every child is different, with different temperaments, needs, challenges and strengths. And Carter is developing at lightning speed. Carter of February 2013 is an entirely different creature than Carter of August 2013. At the end of the day, all of the arguments will have to melt away and “the right choice” will be left.


9 thoughts on “Kindergarten: Holding Back Versus The Gift of Time

  1. Good luck with your decision. I totaly hear you on being obsessed with this topic because I was too. Falco is the youngest kid in his grade. He started kindergarten at 4 and didn’t turn 5 until the end of November (the cutoff was still December 2nd his entering year). We had so many people telling us to wait a year, but we ultimately decided that our family’s lifestyle would be so much better if he moved to K. We figured he would be fine either way, and I think that will be true in the end. Now I see him struggling with his reading and handwriting in first grade and often worry that it’s because he is too young. Then I remember that he went to a play-based preschool and (I believe) was completely unprepared for kindergarten. He has some fine motor delays that wouldn’t have magically gone away a year later. I think having some academic challenges might just be in the cards for him. He excels in math and is well-liked by his peers and teachers, and we all have weaknesses to overcome.

    What I guess I’m trying to say is, no matter what you choose, you will almost certainly second guess your decision. On the other hand, Carter will be fine either way! I don’t think there is a wrong choice.

  2. Thanks for sharing Jenn. I would love to know, after all of your research, did you come to a different conclusion or the same conclusion that your instinct was telling you was the right choice for Carter?

    • Diane, sorry I missed this on the first go around. Ack! Please excuse my tardiness! We have yet to make a decision and plan to wait until this summer sometime. We are leaning heavily towards sending him but who knows what will happen when the panic sets in that we’re sending our Baby off to kindergarten?!?

      • I am still in disbelief that it is almost time for kindergarten!! How are they almost 5?
        I loved reading about all of the research and thought you put into this decision. After reading your post I was amazed how open your approach seemed. The few people I know who have children with summer/early fall birthdays seem to have their mind made up before really thinking about it. I was amazed that even after reading your post I couldn’t tell what your final choice was going to be. Would it be your gut or had something changed your mind?
        And your most recent post about the iPhone! So great. I hadn’t seen the original, but after reading it I loved your version even more!

      • I imagine it will be our gut with heavy influence from the research out there.

        I can’t believe how fast the time is going…

  3. I love your article and found all these pros and cons and even a few more in my research. Would have loved to hear an update on your decision and how it had affected Carter in present day. We are in the same position and are having so much difficulty making the decision.

    • Hi Jackie,
      It’s such a tough decisions, isn’t it? It’s hard to give a straight-forward update. The short(ish) answer is that 95% of the time I don’t second-guess our decision to start him “on time.” He’s fine socially and academically. He is the second youngest in his class and it really only shows occasionally because he has kids in his class who started “late” and are almost two years older than him. I don’t think he notices as much as it creates challenges in the classroom for the teachers occasionally (I really don’t know how teachers do it all). I continue to wonder how he will fare come middle school and high school and navigating peer relationships.

      Since I wrote the post, my younger son also started school. He IS the youngest in his class but it doesn’t show one bit. He has a very different temperament and different intellectual strengths that are well-supported in a traditional classroom. Watching him transition into school confirmed for me that this decision is very, very dependent on the kid. I never second-guess the decision to start my younger son “on time.”

      I don’t have any additional insight to offer except listen to your gut and your child’s current teachers. That quiet voice you hear, the one that whispers to you as you drift off to sleep or first wake up in the morning, knows. Just don’t confuse that voice with the Worry Wart all of us parents have living inside our heads. Good luck!

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