I am drawn to this topic because I’d really like to believe I made the right decision for my recent elementary school graduate. In my community, a significant percentage of children are delaying kindergarten entry, most commonly noted in the boys with birthdays in the first half of the calendar year. The rationale for holding back, or “redshirting” as commonly referred, varies among parents questioned – some report concerns of social and emotional maturity relative to a child’s peers, others have academic concerns and still others have concerns about size and experience relative to sports success. I honestly understand each of these reasons—my son, who sits at the 40-50% for height, looks pretty small on the football field, so small in fact that his natural athletic ability really didn’t outshine his size disadvantage. I have seen plenty of smaller kids, with more pronounced athletic abilities, excel beyond their larger/older peers, but my son really struggled. He now plays a sport that bases the team roster on birthday year (starting in January 1) which for a March birthday has made him one of the oldest. He is still not the best, but he definitely fits. Unfortunately, the other boys in his school class that play hockey are on a different team because they are older and so he doesn’t get that camaraderie with classmates. As they progress through the years, they will eventually play together for the high school team, which may again put my son at a disadvantage. Likely to be a late bloomer, already younger than most, he may have his work cut out for him. So what effect will this have?
I have a close friend who has a beautiful, high-achieving, bright daughter in high school who honestly is a glowing success. But in discussion with her mom, she told me that she worried her daughter hadn’t experienced enough success to really foster her self-esteem, especially compared to her peers. Although she was getting top marks in school, her grades were just lower than her closest friends. Although she was competing well in sports, she wasn’t a team standout. Although she could have dated just about anyone, the boy she was interested in was more interested in her “beautiful” friend… She wanted her to experience a real, even if small, tangible success – just to boost her confidence, to define her sense of self. Isn’t this what makes parenting so hard? We have all been there… We know how hard middle and high school are, we know that most of the time you feel like you don’t quite fit in, that you are not quite smart enough or pretty enough or strong enough to really succeed. But isn’t that still the way it is for us as parents? What really helps us, I believe, deal with the stress of working hard to be accepted, whether by our office coworkers, our tennis team or our neighbors, is the sense of self that develops through adversity. The drive to achieve because achievement may not have come easily…
There are many ways to look at this issue – a child who gets extra attention because she excels at soccer may work to hone that skill since this is an area that delights her audience. A child who excels academically may continue to work hard because his teachers admire him and his parents reward his efforts. But, there is the concern that if you don’t have to struggle for your success, that you may grow bored with it or even more concerning I believe, you may expect it. I think there is no greater risk for failure than expecting to succeed.
“Learning is maximized not by getting all the answers right, but by making errors and correcting them quickly. In this respect, children benefit from being close to the limits of their ability. Too low an error rate becomes boring, while too high an error rate is unrewarding” per a NY Times editorial published in 2011.
Are there other benefits to being young compared to your peers? Per Sam Wang, an associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton, and co-author Sandra Aamodt, former editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience, and authors of “Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows From Conception to College”, “the benefits of interacting with older children may extend to empathetic abilities. This capacity relies on brain maturation, but it is also influenced by interactions with other children. Having an older (but not younger) sibling speeds the onset of this capacity in 3- to 5-year-olds. The acceleration is large: up to half a year per sibling. Although nearly all children reach a mature level of understanding by age 6, there may be lasting social advantages to developing this ability earlier. Parents concerned about a child’s emotional maturity might consider that frequent interaction with more mature classmates could help the developmental process along.” It is an interesting thought. This notion is supported by additional data – specifically “the benefits of being younger are even greater for those who skip a grade, an option available to many high-achieving children. Compared with nonskippers of similar talent and motivation, these youngsters pursue advanced degrees and enter professional school more often. Acceleration is a powerful intervention, with effects on achievement that are twice as large as programs for the gifted. Grade-skippers even report more positive social and emotional feelings.” Honestly this information surprises me – I would think kids that much younger would feel really out of place – but the data does indicate otherwise.
Conversely, an ABC news report stated “a study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2011 said that starting kindergarten one year late “substantially reduces the probability of repeating the third grade, and meaningfully increases tenth grade math and reading scores. Effects are highest for low income students and males.” The NY Times article further explores this notion in a slightly different way by stating “in another large study, the youngest fifth-graders scored a little lower than their classmates, but five points higher in verbal I.Q., on average, than fourth-graders of the same age. In other words, school makes children smarter.”
Of course, in the end, we can all find endless data sources to support our personal preferences. And I am honestly not sure, what is the right answer. Like all things, it really depends on YOUR kid – are they timid? Gregarious? Easily deflated? I will say this though – we have to stop making life so easy for our kids. I know this doesn’t apply to all – I have patients whose daily struggle is apparent, either because of health issues or socioeconomic ones, but as far as academics and sports are concerned, I really believe there is something to be said for struggle and the way it feels to achieve hard-won success.
That’s what I’m telling my son anyway…