This Is The Problem With The Kindergarten Redshirting Debate

by Jen Meerow Berniker
Originally Published: 
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Dear Child,

I just wanted to take a moment to apologize on behalf of your father and I for having the foolish impulse to conceive you in November. We were so clueless in those days. We just wanted a family — 2 kids, a girl and a boy. I had no idea delivering a boy in August would lead to such angst.

In fact, we were so unaware of ones birthday being the indicator of future success in school, sports and life in general that we didn’t even pay attention to what month it was. We just really wanted a second kid; we were hoping for a son. In fact, I traveled to many far-out corners of the Internet to find advice on how to conceive a boy: I ate salty foods and the ends of bread loaves. Timed my cycle to the date of peak boy creation. Told your father to drink a Diet Coke (caffeine makes the boys swim faster, so they say). And it worked! Pregnant with you. Due in August.

But here we are, almost 5 years later, and I am beset with anxiety over your August birthday. It all began when we moved from New York City to a desirable coastal Connecticut suburb. Standing on the playground at your new preschool, I was asked by a mom named Suzy what I thought I was “doing” with you for kindergarten.

“What do you mean?” I replied, watching 2-year-old you scoop up some sand, eat a little, and throw the rest at your classmate.

“Everyone here holds back, especially the boys,” she said, nonchalantly.

“Oh,” I said. “But the Connecticut cutoff is January 1st, and his birthday is over four months before that?”

She gave me a sympathetic look. “It doesn’t matter. He will be one of the youngest. Most people would red-shirt.” She was referring, of course, to the common practice of delaying kindergarten entry by a year.

As we live in the age of too much information, and as I have way too much time on my hands as your reluctant stay-at-home suburban mom, I’ve spent the last two years asking almost every parent I meet in town if their kids have a late birthday, and if they’ve held them. While the answers have been mixed, I’ve found that most people who hold their kids back are happy that they did so. Others roll their eyes and say the whole thing is ridiculous.

And everyone has advice: “No one ever regrets holding back, but they do regret not holding.” “If you hold for no reason he will be bored and act out.” “Younger kids lack maturity and it only gets worse in middle school.” “Younger kids push themselves harder and often outperform their older peers academically in high school.” “No one wants to be the youngest boy.” “What about sports?” “Trust your gut, you know your kid.”

I’ve read every article and research paper. I’ve spoken to preschool directors, teachers, pediatricians and therapists to find out “the answer.” Of course, there is no right answer; it depends on your child and his or her readiness.

But by allowing parents to take the decision into their own hands, we’ve created a cutoff that has no boundary, an anxiety sandwich for those of us who were dumb enough do it at the wrong time of year, the summer birthday penance for a frolic in the fall. Some people hold out of a serious concern for their child’s ability to deal with a full day of real academic school. Some have late fall birthdays and feel that a 4-year-old simply doesn’t belong in kindergarten. Others were held themselves and think it was the secret to their success. Others may just not be ready to let go of their baby and want another year of mommy time. And many do it for perceived competitive advantage down the road.

We parents will do anything to give you kids an edge, and with good reason. College applications are getting more competitive. I’m sorry to tell you this son but you may have to live abroad for a semester, run for local office, and ace AP calculus as a sophomore while playing two varsity sports to get into a top college. No pressure!

But while red-shirting is not proven to help kids academically or otherwise, the problem lies in the trend. Parents holding back for a good reason begets more anxious parents holding back for no reason, and we end up with kids who turned 6 in May in kindergarten with kids who will turn 5 in December. It’s a less than ideal situation for kids at either extreme and for the teacher. If the state’s age cut-off was simply enforced, except for circumstances where a professional assessment recommends waiting, then the teacher would meet that group of children’s needs, who are mostly all within 12 months apart. End of story.

After so many nights of sleep lost considering the finer points of this dilemma, I’ve come to realize that the question about whether or not to delay kindergarten is the parenting micro-crisis of the moment for parents of 4-year-olds with late birthdays. At the time you are going through it, it seems like the most important decision ever, like you are holding your child’s fate in your hands, as if that arbitrary month in which they were born has something to do with who they will become, rather than just a data point in the larger picture of a life.

In reality, unless the child falls in the small percentage of kids that either truly aren’t ready or who are extremely advanced, it is a decision that will probably only move the needle on the course of a child’s life a tiny degree in the long run, if at all.

By all indications, son, you are a smart, athletic, social, normally developing child. You are not and will not be tall and you tend to be on the shy side when you are in a new situation. Sure, you still sleep in a diaper. And while holding you back a year may allow you to grow a little more out of that little boy body and mature socially so you can strut into kindergarten like a 6-year-old CEO, I also believe your personality and your potential are already baked into your adorable little head.

And I believe in your determination. The way you build that magna-tile tower with focus and a plan. The way you neatly write out your name and get giddy when you count by 10s or recognize a word. The way you ask deep and intelligent questions about where lightening goes when it hits the ground. The way you can throw a fit when your toast is cream-cheesed wrong, but then pull yourself together and move on. The way you have conversations with your older sister’s friends. The way you won’t stop until you cross the high monkey bars, on your own. And I believe that you, born healthy and resilient to a mom who even cares about you enough to obsess over something like this, already has enough advantages stacked in your favor.

I know that you will do well in life whatever path you are placed on. I, however, may self-destruct from anxiety before you get to college. Holding you back may not benefit you in a profound way long-term, but it would be beneficial to me psychologically. If we delay you and you have issues later on in school, we can say, “Imagine if we didn’t hold him, it would have been worse!” But if we send you on time, and you struggle with math in fourth grade, or you are bullied, we are faced with the potential, “We should have held him!”

Even if you are the one kid in history that experiences no academic or social challenges in school, there’s still the “Imagine if he hadn’t been the youngest, he might have been the valedictorian, or gotten a sports scholarship!” It’s much easier to question the things we didn’t do than the things we did.

And for all those parents lucky enough to have conceived on a better schedule and given birth in the first quarter, their kids may or may not face difficulties but the onus is luckily not on the parents to defend when they began school. When your March-born sister had trouble learning to read in first grade, I had no guilt or regrets, just an issue to address. This was just the way it was for her. And it wasn’t my fault.

So, your dad and I have decided to send you to kindergarten on time. Someone has to be the youngest and I’m telling you now, I’m sorry that it’s probably going to be you. Your preschool teachers desperately want you to go. Your friends, some of who seem more “ready” and others who seem less “ready” than you, are excited to go.

You are excited to go, and why shouldn’t you be? Had you been born a month or two earlier, we never would have had this discussion. August is late, but it’s not that late. You will be driving before your senior year. You will be 18 when you enter college. And if we are wrong, and you hit puberty late and don’t make the soccer team and all the kids make fun of you and your life is a disaster, we will use the $20,000 we saved on a second year of private preschool to pay for all the therapy you’ll need because we had the dumb urge to do it in November. Word to the wise, wait until spring.

With love,


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