Fighting Words

In my previous post, I wrote that I thought I was the one in our family with the most anxiety about our oldest starting kindergarten. As it ends up, Boy Wonder had a lot of anxiety, too. He cried everyday for the first two weeks, clinging to my arm, leg, shoulder, neck – any part of my body he could wrap his little arms and legs around, begging me to take him home. Thinking back to my dream from my previous post, he was no longer happily playing in the water; he was drowning and screaming for me to help him and I had no (real) choice but to keep throwing him back in the water.

We weren’t the only ones struggling and I exchanged looks of sympathy with a handful of other parents with their own children velcroed to their legs. I was somewhat prepared for this. Actually, it went down about the way I expected it to with one little surprise wrapped up in a 45 inches tall, 50 pound package – a little boy named Anthony.

Anthony (not his real name) is one of those little kids I didn’t like from the moment I met him. Yes, I admit it –  I don’t like all children. All children are loveable (by someone) but Anthony is the type of child that makes me grateful for my own sons on their worst days. He is loud and rambunctious. He runs everywhere with arms flailing about, often running into and knocking down other children, sometimes on accident but usually on purpose. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him walk. Did I mention he’s loud? Really loud.  Worse, the words coming out of his mouth are often not the words that should be spoken loudly around children, especially when the person speaking them is a child himself.

On the second day of kindergarten as I knelt with my son in line outside his classroom, feeling his head buried in my shoulder and spilling hot little tears on my neck, Anthony stood in line in front of us. He turned around abruptly and said to us loudly (it’s the only setting on his volume dial), “You’re such a cry baby! Only babies cry like you!”

“Flick (Dylan Earhart) is tortured by school yard bully Scut Farkus (Calvin Whitney) while little Randy (Harrison Goyette) lays helplessly in the snow in A Christmas Story.I was stunned. I looked around for Anthony’s mom or dad, expecting them to step in with a quick admonishment (at least) and then model more helpful language (a hopeful long shot in most cases, I know). I scanned the parents standing around. Where were they? All of the other kids’ parents were there. No one stepped in so I ignored him and placed my body between him and my son. Anthony left us alone.

The next day I chose a place away from Anthony but he actually sought us out in line and he proceeded to taunt my son again: “You cried all morning yesterday. Are you gonna cry again today? Jeez. Such a cry baby! I don’t cry. My baby brother cries but I don’t. Quit crying already.”

I looked around again for Anthony’s parents, desperately hoping someone would intervene to say something to this child. Seeing no one, I felt my own anger, hurt and need to protect my child rise up like a red hot bowling ball from the pit of my stomach. My fight-or-flight instinct was kicking in and it was telling me to fight: “Who are you to call my son a cry baby! You little loud-mouthed runt! Step off or I will throw down! You think that just because there are a bunch of people around that I won’t? Just watch!”

Oh. My. God. I had just played out in my head what that fireball in my stomach wanted me to do. My body was preparing to take down a five-year-old! A kindergartner! He’s not even half my size! Horrified and embarrassed by my reaction, I swallowed the fireball, picked up my son and walked/stomped to the back of the line, certain everyone could see the steam coming from my ears and the lasers shooting from my eye sockets aimed straight for Anthony.

The next day, as we approached school, I felt my son tighten his grip on my hand and I started to feel my own anxiety rise. We were one of the first to arrive but Anthony was already there. He left us alone at first but inevitably he found his way to us and started hurling his insults at my son again. I swallowed my fireball and immediately knelt down and said in my kindest, softest mommy voice, “Anthony, it’s ok if he wants to cry. He’s feeling scared and sad and he feels better if he cries. Do you sometimes cry when you’re scared or sad?”

Anthony looked at me hard. I don’t know what he was thinking. Maybe he was thinking if he told the truth it would mean that he was a cry baby, too. And if he lied, well, then he was a liar. He didn’t say anything but instead turned to talk/yell at one of the other kids in his class. He left us alone.

The next day, Friday, my son and I were the first ones in his class to arrive at school. Anthony was the second. He walked right up to us and said at a volume that resembled normal, “Hi Mrs. Mommy. I brought my lunch today. It’s turkey.” I stood with my son on one side of me and Anthony on the other, instinctively feeling the need to protect my son, uncertain how this exchange was going to go.  As the three of us continued talking, I noticed Anthony stepping closer and closer until he was leaning against my leg.  Somewhere between telling me about his backpack and asking my son about his lunchbox, Anthony reached up and gently held my hand. He proceeded to have a very nice conversation with me and my son for the next couple of minutes before another child arrived. He let go of my hand and started talking/yelling at the other child, and my son started his routine of clinging to me tighter and tighter until we both enveloped ourselves into our little ritual to get him through the routine of walking with his class and into his classroom. But Anthony left us alone and has ever since.  I haven’t heard Anthony call my son a cry baby and Anthony almost always comes to say/shout hello to us when we arrive in the morning.

I can’t help but wonder and worry about Anthony. Who in his life is telling him it’s not ok to cry? Equally important, who is telling him it’s ok to treat others the way he treated my son? More importantly, how do I better prepare my son to weather these emotional attacks when I’m not around? What will happen when I’m not there to intervene? I hear my son stick up for himself in other situations and use the language I’ve taught him to use: “I don’t like it when you treat me that way. It hurts my feelings. If you don’t stop, I’m going to go play somewhere else.” I know he has no qualms about reporting to adults when he or someone else is physically injured; he’s probably closer to being a tattle-tale than anything else. Right now, I’m ok with that. He has time to learn more advanced social skills that will allow him to be more self-sufficient but he’s only five years old! He should still feel like he can go to an adult for help if he needs it. Maybe that’s exactly what Anthony was trying to do, and ultimately, it’s what he got.

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The River

I am sitting on the banks of a river watching my five-year-old boy swim and play in the calm water. He dives underwater, exploring, inventing a new game every few minutes. His water games take him further and further away from the bank, until he drifts away, too far for me to reach him. I stand at the edge of the water bellowing for him to swim to me and come back. Too far away to hear me, he is happily swimming and playing, blissfully unaware of the possible danger and my panic.

And I wake up.

medium_3577182683It’s 4:30 this morning and after regaining my senses I’m disappointed in the transparency of my subconscious. My dream is uncreative in its reflection of what is going on in my life. After much (too much?) deliberation, we decided to enroll our oldest in kindergarten and he starts next week. We not only started him in kindergarten but we chose a Spanish immersion program at our neighborhood public school. After attending an informational meeting last winter and being blown away by the fifth graders in attendance who easily moved between speaking English and Spanish – and had a degree of maturity and confidence that surprised almost everyone in the room – we were sold. We entered in the lottery and were elated when we received notice this summer that Our Boy would be enrolled.

Reality hit hard this week. Much like millions of families across the country this week, we started the back to school shuffle: gathering school supplies, filling out paperwork, buying new clothes and running endless errands. I was fine. I was more than fine! I was excited and relieved to be starting this new chapter. I couldn’t relate to the many Facebook posts from friends sending their little ones off to kindergarten amidst tears and sadness. We had a great summer and I was ready for school to start and so were my kids. Our Boy was showing all the signs of being excited for school and it thrilled me to see him happily exploring reading, writing and math on his own.

We were ready.

Our boy went to his assessment and reported back to us (we weren’t allowed in the room) that the teacher only spoke Spanish but he figured out what she was asking and answered in Spanish when he knew the Spanish words (his numbers and colors) and in English when he didn’t know. He seemed unaffected. I was thrilled for him. But, I was unnerved when I learned the teacher would not speak English in front of the children. Period. I panicked. How was I going to talk to her? She didn’t offer an email or phone number (hopefully that’s coming). I was told by another parent that a separate appointment is needed at a time when the child isn’t present. The logistical nightmare became obvious and I started to worry but took comfort seeing how comfortable Our Son was with this new landscape. He was unphased.

A couple of days later we had Kinder Round-Up, a meeting at school giving kids the chance to meet their teacher and classmates and see their classroom. The teacher, speaking only in Spanish, invited the kids to sit on the carpet with her and read a book.  Predictably, Our Boy sat at the very most outer-edge of the carpet and he kept one eye on the teacher and one eye on me. About half-way through, he finally gave up and came and sat on my lap. The teacher invited him to participate and he refused. He didn’t cry or get upset but he withdrew. He has shown no other real signs of stress (yet) but I couldn’t help but panic a little more.

This panic took grip after the kids went to bed. I eventually fell asleep but then woke at 2:30, never to return to sleep for the night. His little bit of withdrawal threw me. Seeing the teacher interact with the kids only in Spanish threw me. The looks of confusion on the faces of almost every child threw me. I started to think we had made a mistake.  I carried this suspicion with me the entire day. We headed to a playdate organized by the school with other parents of kids in the Spanish immersion program. I sent the kids off to go play and immediately set out to find a parent who could answer some questions:

“Did your kid freak out?” “What happens when they lose it?” “Will the teacher speak to them in English?” “What about in an emergency? Will the teacher speak to the kids in English then?” “If the teacher won’t speak English in front of the children, when will I talk to her?” “Was this a mistake?” “Should I just pull him out and put him in traditional kindergarten?”

I found a group of moms with kids who had been in the program for at least a year. I happened to know one of them and elbowed my way into their circle. I got half-way through my first question before I felt the pinch in my voice that gave me away that I was about to lose it. The mom next to me said in a surprisingly reassuring voice, “He’s going to be fine.”

In my mind, I replied, “No he’s not.  Fear, confusion and intimidation are going to squash his confidence and curiosity. He’s gong to become a shell of his former self, start listening to heavy-metal, death-rock music, completely withdraw and start torturing bugs and small animals. I’ll have to check him into rehab at the age of eight and surrender him to the state before he’s 10. I’m making a colossal parenting mistake. The biggest of my life.” In my mind, the fragments of my dream were starting to form. I could see water swirling around Our Boy and it was dark and moving faster and faster. I swear I could see alligators and sharks circling him, ready to eat him up.

She repeated it again, “He’s going to be fine. Like most things, this is a lot harder on parents than the kids. He’s going to be confused and frustrated for a while but he’s going to be fine.” The other parents nodded in agreement and offered their own stories of sleepless nights, doubt and oaths to “just pull their kid out.”

After talking to these parents, I realized that my anxiety was all about my fears. I’m not afraid because he’s afraid. I’m not panicked because he’s panicked. He’s not losing any sleep. He doesn’t know the difference; he doesn’t know what it’s like to go to a kindergarten class where the teacher speaks English. He doesn’t know that I’m going to have a communication barrier with his teacher and, even if he does, he doesn’t care. He wants to play, learn and make friends. And he’s going to do exactly that.

He needs to play and drift from shore and be oblivious to my shouts for him to come back. I need to stop panicking. Instead of shouting for him to come back, I need to smile and wave and tell him to have fun and go explore. I’ll be right here on the banks of the river, waiting for him to come home and tell me all about the wonderful things he discovered in the water.

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: http://www.naeyc.org/positionstatements/school_readiness

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

http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/Publications/ArticleExamples/RinRDelayingKEntry.pdf

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.