Repeat after me, parents-to-be: have your babies in the wintertime. Do not have a summertime baby. Got it? Good. Now, if you’re already pregnant, and you realize that you’re going to give birth to a summertime baby, don’t panic. It’s not too late. Just make sure it’s a girl. Otherwise, you’re in for it.
I didn’t expect any trouble with my four-year-old son Holden’s entering kindergarten when we moved to Dallas, Texas, from Brooklyn last summer. The Texas cutoff for kindergarteners to turn five is September 1, and Holden (born August 21, 2003) made it, albeit barely.
I had never even heard of kindergarten “redshirting,” the college athletics term for benching an athlete for a year so he can “mature.” But as soon as we got to Texas, we noticed that many of the parents we met were obsessed with the “summer birthday boys.” People we did not even know were concerned that Holden, if he entered on time, would be “too immature” and “socially unready” to handle kindergarten. Everyone insisted that we hold him back.
My husband and I were totally confused. Why was everyone in Dallas so concerned that boys be six when they enter kindergarten, when the rules say five? And, why were the summer birthday girls ready for kindergarten, and the boys were not?
In October, I attended Holden’s parent-teacher conference at preschool.
His teacher gave me a photocopied list. “Here is a state-approved list for kindergarten readiness. I’d like you to take a look at it.”
I quickly scanned the list. Recognizes Own Name. Check. Identifies Colors. Check. Recognizes Letters/Sounds of the Alphabet. He’d been reading since his third birthday. Check. Able To Follow Directions (More than two in a row). Check. I read the rest of the list, and Holden had mastered every single task save one, Takes Turns To Talk/Doesn’t Interrupt. We were working on that one.
“I think you should hold Holden back from kindergarten,” she said.
“Are you joking?”
I felt myself getting defensive. I started talking too loud. “He reads! He’s fully reading! He meets every criteria on this list, except one! Why on earth would we hold him back?” My mind was racing. I was thinking there must be some explanation. He was smart, social, pretty well-behaved. He definitely had his moments. But still, I couldn’t think of what would make the teacher want to hold him back from kindergarten.
“Yes, Holden is a very smart boy. But, he acts very young.”
“How Holden acts is perfectly age-appropriate. But, he does act young.”
Okay, things were getting a little wrinkled for me now. I couldn’t follow the conversation. Holden was acting young, and by young, we mean acting four – which was perfectly okay, according to her – but acting young was not okay for kindergarten? The other children, the ones not being held back from kindergarten, how were they acting? Old? Older? Older than what?
“What is he doing that’s so young?” I began to have nightmarish visions: Holden yanking down his pants and peeing on a kid. Hurling toilet paper wads at the bathroom ceiling.
“Well, for one, he sucks his thumb.”
Sucks his thumb? I knew kids who sucked their thumbs in high school! (Ones who went to Stanford, by the way.)
“I think if it continues, the other children will make fun of him.”
She cited other examples of his immaturity: when they did a silly song and dance on Fridays, he participated. (The other boys did not.) Also, he liked to play by himself.
Holden’s teacher explained to me that, in Texas, most young boys were considered unready to face the “social challenges” of kindergarten – though she couldn’t pinpoint what those challenges actually were – and were held back. Angry, I argued that she had not taken the time to observe my particular child. In my mind, somebody had to be the youngest, and why were we picking on the boys? Did the girls not undergo the same toxic scrutiny for “immaturity” that the boys did?
“The little girls are so much better at sitting still” was her only comment.
My sweet, smart, socially normal four-year-old would be held back. She said Holden was right on track, but that I’d have to hold him back because all the other boys his age would be held back. My perfectly sweet, smart, socially normal four-year-old was being told that he needed to be held back, because that’s what the other boys were doing. Peer pressure for preschoolers!
Recent studies done on kindergarten redshirting have shown that growing numbers of summer birthday boys are being held back a year before starting kindergarten, especially in white, affluent areas of the country. In Carroll, Texas, a wealthy south Dallas suburb, 158 of 452 kindergarteners were six at the start of the 2007-2008 school year, while 165 of 504 first graders were seven. In Highland Park, Texas, a small city within the city of Dallas, 96 of 452 kindergarteners were six, and 79 of 436 first graders were seven, or eight(!).
Studies have shown two negatives regarding redshirting kindergarten boys. First, boys who are redshirted don’t perform any better than the average students of the class they join – in other words, they don’t perform as if they’re six, but instead perform like the other five-year-olds in their class. Also, boys who are held back tend to have more behavioral problems later on.
Let me stop and rewind a bit: I am not talking about children with learning problems or developmental delays. Kids with delays and learning problems are a different consideration altogether. None of the summer birthday boys in Holden’s class were being held back because of developmental delays. They were being held back so they could have a perceived advantage over other children.
I couldn’t help wondering if Holden’s teacher hadn’t mentioned something about my conference tirade to the other preschool mothers, because each, in turn, began grilling me about my decision.
I met one mom and her kids at the park one afternoon. “What are you going to do with Holden next year?”
“He’s going to kindergarten.” I tried to sound nonchalant.
The mom clucked. “Ooooh. That could be a mistake.”
“Well, Billy had a summer birthday, and we went ahead and sent him to kindergarten. His preschool teacher warned us to hold him back, but we were out to prove her wrong.”
Gulp. This “story” sounded a little familiar. “What happened?”
“It wasn’t good.”
I wanted to drive back to New York that minute. “Did he do poorly?”
“Well, no. He did quite well.”
“Did he have behavior problems?”
Moms were concerned with dating, driving, and one more thing. “Well – no. He did all right there, too. It’s just that . . . I hate to say it, but . . . ”
“WHAT? WHAT IS IT?”
“It’s just that the teachers were prejudiced against him. They think that the younger kids are a pain. We were so stubborn about it, out to prove a point, and as a result Billy had a miserable year.”
At this point, my blood actually started to boil.
In the next four weeks, I had seven more conversations with moms who insisted that I not send Holden to kindergarten. They told me their own success stories. One mom told me her son acted “effeminate,” and she held him back a year to ensure that he was larger than the other boys, so they’d be less likely to pick on him. Another told me that she was holding her younger son back so there would be more room between him and her older son. “That way he (the older son) can enjoy high school without baby brother in his business.” Still another mother was concerned about dating. “Tommy will be able to get his driver’s license with all the other kids, be able to drive, go out on dates a year earlier.” I listened in horror. Nobody mentioned academics. These moms were more concerned with the social advantages that came with being older and bigger: dating, driving, and – oh, yeah, one more thing.
There was one more reason, a blip on the radar, every single mom mentioned to me, however sheepishly: sports eligibility. In a state known for near-deadly sports competitiveness, Texas wisdom is that the bigger the boy gets, the more competitive he’ll be at sports, especially in high school. And the older ones will be bigger first.
“He loves soccer, and he’ll have an advantage.”
“With his size advantage, we’re looking for a scholarship.”
“Don’t you want to give Holden an advantage? Keep him at home one more year, give him an edge.”
I felt I was surrounded by lunatics.
By the end of Pre-K’s first semester, I was worried that I needed to drink the Kool-Aid. I couldn’t help feeling pressured to hold back my son so we’d fit in. I began losing sleep. I became afraid of running into the other mothers.
In defense of Holden’s teacher and all the insane mommies who were browbeating me, I want acknowledge that kindergarten as we remember it doesn’t exist anymore. That half-day colors-and-letters playtime with dull scissors is gone, replaced by preschool. Kindergarten has gotten harder, and more competitive. I can see how parents might get nervous that a young child was not going to do well.
In April, I took Holden to a local school’s “Kindergarten Round-Up,” and the kindergarten I witnessed there is a full-day, five-day-a-week endeavor. There, Holden would wear a uniform of khaki or blue shorts or pants, and a white collared shirt. He would have one twenty-minute recess a day, and art, music, and phys. ed. only once a week. He would attend both Mac and PC computer courses. He would have homework assignments four out of five nights a week. If he was was sick for more than one day, he would have to produce a doctor’s note upon his return. Unexcused absences would result in suspension.
Redshirting seems to me like thinly disguised one-upmanship. Okay. For a moment, I saw what the kooky preschool moms were saying. This seemed like a very grown-up world for my son, who still has to be reminded to wipe his behind and can’t yet tie his shoes. I went ahead and signed him up for kindergarten at the “round-up,” but I worried a little that I’d been hasty. That I was just being stubborn.
We all want our kids to be the best they can be. I want Holden to have every advantage, because he’s a good kid with a ton of potential. But redshirting seems to me like thinly disguised one-upmanship, a show of force and a way that rich, white kids can gain yet another advantage over the other children. And frankly, it seems unfair – especially to the kids who could probably use another year in preschool if their families could only afford it.
As a Texas friend said to me recently, “The competition is so fierce. Kids just aren’t allowed to be kids anymore. There’s so much pressure on them to be something spectacular. You aren’t allowed to just be a regular kid.”
Finally, I opted out of the summer birthday boy craziness. I took the springtime to research other Dallas schools, and we found a public school with a wonderful principal who sticks to the rules. Holden is going to kindergarten this fall, and is totally excited. He will be among the youngest in his class, but he won’t be the only boy who’s not six.
Now that it’s all over, I only have one wish: that Holden had saved us all this trouble by being born in December.