Monday, May 16, 2011

Tom Matlack - Redshirting Kindergarten

Tom Matlack, founder of The Good Men Project, has posted an article at Huffington Post on a new trend in which parents are keeping their male children home an extra year before starting kindergarten. Without even reading the article, I knew some of the motivation for the idea - boys generally are a year or two behind girls in academic and verbal development. At least one researcher has said boys' brains are not ready to read until age seven or so.

The parents Tom describes seem less concerned with academics, however, and more concerned with the child's social and sporting advantage by being a year older than his peers. This sounds like more of the helicopter parenting that has been getting so much attention - manipulating every detail of the kid's life so that he will never know what it's like to fail. That's just bad parenting.

Redshirting Kindergarten

Tom Matlack - Venture capitalist-turned-writer

Here is some of the article, I encourage all parents of boys to read the whole piece.

Most particularly it made me think of the increasing number of families who are holding back their sons at the age of five, particularly in private schools, in order to increase their competitive advantage, following, perhaps without knowing it consciously, the line of thinking that has been used to produce professional hockey players.

Photo Credits Fessenden School

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the odd distribution of birth months among NHL players. In Canada, youth hockey is a highly policed sport where players are registered strictly by calendar year. The oldest, therefore, at each level are those born earliest in the year. Just by virtue of age they tend to be bigger and stronger. Gladwell argues convincingly that a disproportionate number of successful hockey players end up being born in the first few months of the year (see graph below). This selection process starts as early as age 8, and the effect persists all the way up to the NHL. It has been very consistent over time.


So if it is true of youth hockey players in Canada why wouldn't it be true of kindergarten boys in Boston, or San Francisco, whose parents are hoping they will grow up to be President one day. That makes sense right?

Photo Credit, wworks

I asked one admissions officer what he says to the parents of boys entering kindergarten about the idea of holding their son back. He said, "I often tell parents that if allowing their children to be on the older end, rather than the younger end, results in any of the following: starting for a sports team as opposed to sitting on the bench; being one of the first to drive as opposed to one of the last (huge social advantage); the possibility they will be an A and B student as opposed to a B and C student; (for the dads) getting the girl or not getting the girl, then it is worth considering." (All the sources for this article asked to remain anonymous given the sensitive nature of their day-to-day relationships with children and their parents.)

But a different admissions officer disagreed strongly: "The trend is disgusting, but it fits with any arms race or conflict cycle model. I've been wondering more broadly about what age we push kids through all the school factories. All they have in common is age and since they all develop at different ages, that system often makes little sense anyway."

What I have noticed is that more and more boys are being held back. As a result, the classroom dynamic is changing so that the kids who play by the rules are disadvantaged by those who are bigger and more mature. As one teacher put it, "While I do believe there are some cases where a child is served well by being slightly older, I do not think this is true for most children. The problem we repeatedly run into is that as some parents hold their children back, it wreaks havoc on the class dynamic and turns a pre-K classroom into an 'almost kindergarten' one."

If we keep our curriculum to what we feel is age-appropriate, we get parents who demand to know why we don't challenge their child. If we cater to those in the class who are developmentally more advanced, we lose those children who are being children and are developmentally where they should be. I would argue that those children, both boys and girls, who are pushed at an early age, end up at a social disadvantage later on, as not enough attention was given to their emotional development, and far too much was given to developing skill sets.

That last comment makes a lot of sense to me. My parents did not allow me to be moved from 4th grade the 6th grade, despite my academic success and physical size, because my father felt that it would not benefit me to be less socially and emotionally mature than my new cohort. I was angry and hurt at the time, but looking back it was probably the right choice - I was socially awkward and geeky as it was, it would not have been good to be a nine year old in classes with 11 and 12 year olds.

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