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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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.

The man on the bike with the baby

We have moved to the set of The Truman Show. At least, that’s what I keep telling my husband. In the movie The Truman Show, a man (Jim Carrey) is going about living his mostly idyllic life that, unbeknownst to him, has been a carefully orchestrated and scripted Hollywood reality show. The houses are charming and the lawns well cared for, the neighbors friendly and helpful, the wives beautiful, the husbands successful and handsome, the kids cute and perfectly behaved. We live a short walk from a cute downtown with a combination of boutiques, cafes, and “everywhere” stores (Gap, Pottery Barn, etc.). Carter rides his bike to school three blocks away with his new best friend who lives across the street. For every three people there is a golden retriever or labradoodle. There is no road-rage. Everyone waves and smiles when they pass each other on the street.  It’s wonderful…and unnerving. I often find myself fighting the urge to walk around saying rather loudly, “This is all a charade! You’re all actors! You can stop it now! I know what’s going on!”

And I feel guilty as hell. The deep, Protestant, you-can’t-go-to-enough-church-to-wash-you-of-your-sins, kind of guilty.

Shortly after we moved here, I was on my way home from driving Justin to work (I was driving our convertible Mercedes because our SUV was in the shop…not because it was broken but because it was getting serviced, what a luxury) when I stopped at a stoplight. I was on a busy street lined with old apartment complexes built in the 40’s and 50’s that haven’t been touched since and are now occupied by low and middle income families. Outside my window, I watched as a man dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and baseball cap stood in the doorway of his apartment, said his goodbyes with a kiss and hug to a woman and then leaned over and kissed a baby in a stroller. I was struck by how similar that scene looked to the one that had played out countless times in our own house. Justin goes off to work (but dressed in a button down shirt, khakis and dress shoes), kisses me goodbye and hugs and kisses the boys before he goes off to work. For some reason, I was momentarily comforted by watching this universal ritual unfolding in a setting so different from my own.

But then, in a fluid motion, one that revealed it was something this man had done countless times before, he picked up the baby in the stroller (tiny little bundle!), wrapped it in thick blankets, put the baby on his shoulder, hopped on his bike and pedaled down the street, holding the baby with one hand and steering with the other.

I couldn’t believe it. Forget that he didn’t have a helmet on (I could hear my son’s panicked voice in my head, “Mommy! He doesn’t have a helmet!”). Forget that the baby wasn’t wearing a helmet (they don’t even make helmets that small, do they?). Forget that the baby wasn’t even in a baby seat or baby trailer. Forget that the man was riding down one of the busiest streets in the area. I had a million questions flood my mind. Where is he going? Is he taking the baby to work with him? Is the baby sick? Are they going to the doctor (the only legitimate reason I could come up with for why he would put his baby at such risk)? Or is he dropping the baby off at a babysitter or daycare? Where, in God’s name, is he taking a baby wrapped up in a blanket while riding on a bicycle?

As I sat in my convertible Mercedes, I thought of my boys and the obscenely expensive, currently empty car seats carefully and tightly strapped into the rear seats of our SUV and how much energy I had expended in the last four years ensuring my kids were securely strapped into the seats every time we went anywhere in our car. We rode bicycles for fun and only after lengthy lectures on safety and responsibility.

My momentary comfort in the universal ritual of dads saying goodbye to their families in the morning fell away. I had no context or perspective from which to view this scene.

My guilt and confusion was overwhelming. I began to sob. And there I sat in my convertible Mercedes driving back home to our newly painted and decorated house in Burlingame/Truman Show, CA to ride bikes with my four year old who was most certainly already having his Oma help him get the straps to his bike helmet tightened under his chin. And when I got home I would carefully strap my two-year old into our way-too-expensive stroller so we could take a walk to the neighborhood park to play with other kids who were in all likelihood doing just about the exact same thing.

I came home and told my mom who was visiting for a few days what I had seen. I said,  “It’s not fair that I get the luxuries of safety and security and education when so many other people don’t. Why am I any better or more deserving than anyone else?” Because I worked hard? Lots of people work hard and don’t get what I have. Because my parents could afford to send me to college (at a state school with ridiculously low tuition)? Because I can afford to pay my law school loans (because of said ridiculously low tuition)? Because I married a man who also works hard and is smart and works in an industry that compensates him well? Because, frankly, we had also been very lucky?

And then my mom told the story of my great-grandmother whose husband died unexpectedly when my grandmother was a senior in high school. There she was. Mother of four kids aged 17, 16, 14, and 12 years old with a farm in Iowa to run just as the Great Depression was starting. How unfair. She did not wallow. She did not feel sorry for herself (of course she did but no one knew it). No time for that! And she did everything she needed to to keep the farm afloat (it is a business, after all). Rather than sending her two oldest girls to college, as was the plan, she kept them close to home and they worked in town, giving all of their pay to keep the family farm alive. My great-granmother got up before dawn to tend to the farm animals, gather cow pies (that’s dried cow crap for you city slickers) to burn for fuel. She turned her home into a boarding house to help bring in a little more money. Once the two youngest boys were old enough, they started helping with the farm, too. This wasn’t temporary. This was how she spent the majority of the rest of her life. She saved the farm and it’s still in the family. One of her great-grandsons still lives in the house. Below is a picture of it that I took during our trip to Iowa this summer:

The four kids helped my great-grandmother as best they could, all raising their families close to the farm. My grandmother later married my grandfather who also lived in the small Iowa farming town and moved to a nearby farm. Here, they raised my mom and her two sisters. Farming life is not easy nor lucrative. My grandparents worked very hard, lived modest lives and sacrificed like crazy to give their three girls a chance at going to college and having careers. Which they all did (still do).

My mom married my dad, also raised on a farm in the small Iowa farm town. My two aunts married men from the same farming community as well. And they all promptly got the hell out of Dodge. Not in a spiteful way (our family remains close-knit) but in a way that honored the opportunities my grandparents tried to create. And my parents did everything they could to provide me and my siblings the same opportunities, with an exponential increase in expectations and sacrifice. Standing on that foundation created by my parents’, grandparents’, and great-grandparents’ sacrifices (and the inherent advantages of being a middle-class white female in our society), I went to college and law school and built my career and life with my husband. And then Justin and I made our sacrifices to start a family and began to build a foundation for our children on which to build their futures.

Maybe the-man-on-the-bike-with-the-baby is doing the same thing…he’s just a couple of generations behind my family. The evolution of wealth is usually slow.

Maybe. Maybe not.

I still feel guilty.

I also told my husband about the-man-on-bike-with-the-baby and in the only way that he can give me an ass-kicking, he gave me an ass-kicking (reason #3 I married him). He said, “How do you know that the man you saw is not actually every bit as happy as you? Maybe his life in the last 10 years has been hell and he’s thrilled to be enjoying the life of a new dad and he’s grateful for a job that makes it possible for him to live in that apartment. Just because the two minutes of his life that you witnessed is shocking to you doesn’t mean he doesn’t love his life.”

Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe Justin was also just trying to make me feel better (reason #8 I married him).

The truth is, I have no idea where the-man-on-the-bike-with-the-baby was going and whether or not he was happy or satisfied with his life. Just like I have no idea whether the beautiful wives, handsome and successful husbands, and well-behaved children we are now surrounded by are happy or satisfied…or not.

But, right now, I am happy and satisfied. And I’m going to enjoy it and be very, very grateful for this moment in time.  My great-grandmother wouldn’t want me to take my happiness for granted but she’d be damned if I felt guilty for it, too.