Redshirting my kid won’t ruin his life

Our son turned five this June and didn’t go to Kindergarten this September. We plan to have him start next year, when he turns six. My husband’s an elementary school principal and I’m a teacher; we planned our course of action carefully and with a pretty good understanding of what school is like. But lots of publications I admire, from The New York Times to Slate, tell me quite confidently that we made the wrong choice. People like my husband and me, these and many other articles basically conclude, are perpetuating class divisions, not challenging their children’s developing brains, and ensuring that they’ll get worse grades, drop out of school, and find low-paying jobs when they get older.

I can handle some criticism, but when even Tom Ashbrook started sounding a little judgy on his recent On Point segment about “redshirting”, I felt it was time to speak up. Because in all of these conversations and articles where people cite a bunch of “research” showing that delaying Kindergarten is a terrible idea, I have yet to hear anyone discuss one of the most important facts: that Kindergarten has changed.

Most people realize, at least on an anecdotal level, that Kindergarten is different now than it used to be; The University of Virginia and The Washington Post do an excellent job of showing exactly how (for example: over twice as many Kindergarten teachers today believe kids need to learn to read in Kindergarten as opposed to later). Yet all of the research supporting the supposed stupidity of redshirting are based on studies conducted on kids who attended Kindergarten when it was still…well, Kindergarten.

The Slate article, for example, cites a couple of studies tracking the mediocre accomplishments of tenth-graders and adults who’d been held back; those studies concluded in 2006 and 2008, implying that the test subjects had gone to Kindergarten when Kindergarten was more like today’s preschool. Why does this matter? Because we can’t assume that today’s expectations for Kindergartners are developmentally appropriate. Is it realistic for a boy who just turned five to sit in school for seven hours a day? To definitely be able to read? The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss wisely states that Kindergarten curriculum “should still be based in early childhood best practices, not merely a push down of what was formerly first or second grade work.” But is it?

The fact is, nobody knows whether or not the rigorous academic focus of today’s Kindergarten will pay off. It’s too soon to tell. And though the underlying assumption seems to be that people hold their kids back from Kindergarten in order to give them some kind of academic “edge” over their fellow classmates, what if they’re just doing it so that the kids can actually keep up with these rigorous demands in the first place?

In the On Point segment, executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children Rhian Evans Allvin asks a valid question: “If you do decide to hold your child back, what’s going to happen in that year period? Hold them back to what end? What experience will they have in that year that will better equip them to handle [school] when they’re six?”

Her question, I think, points to a second important issue that I’m also not sure I’ve heard people discuss enough: the fact that for a variety of reasons that could merit dozens of additional blog posts, not all children’s “at home” experiences are created equal. Is all-day Kindergarten equally important for all children? I don’t think so. I do understand why we need to offer all-day Kindergarten. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for my five-year-old boy.

So, to answer Allvin’s question, here’s what’s happening, for us, “in that year period” that we stole: our son attends preschool three mornings per week. The rest of the time, he’s at home with his little sister and me. And what do we do? Well, for starters, we read for hours on end. Our son can’t actually read yet, but he loves to listen to me read books of all kinds out loud, including chapter books (most recently, Charlotte’s Web and Little House in the Big Woods). We work with upper and lowercase letters, doing art projects and telling stories that reinforce our letter of the week. We take long walks in the woods and make applesauce and can salsa. We’re learning French together and singing songs in German. We work on music; slowly, I’m teaching him and his younger sister how to play the violin. We memorize rhymes and fingerplays. We do math: most recently, we used a big bowl of blueberries to work on addition and subtraction. Once a week, our son participates in a nature class; he spends three hours in the woods, learning to build shelters and fires and whittle. He also plays– with his superhero costumes and his Legos, his friends and his dog.

In other words, I think my son’s having an awesome year, and so am I. I’m glad he’s not in school all day. I do think he has a better chance of actually enjoying all-day school when he’s a little older. I have no idea if he’ll learn to read this year (an expectation he would have been held to in Kindergarten), and I’m completely unconcerned about it. I think a kid who begs to have Charlotte’s Web read to him when he’s five will learn to read eventually, when he’s ready, which is why any standardized test that might suggest he’s “behind” wouldn’t mean much to me (though it might discourage him).

I know I’m lucky to work part-time from home at a job that allows me the flexibility to spend an extra year with my children. I fully appreciate that, and I understand that not everyone has that luxury. So go ahead and tell me I’m privileged. Tell me I’m fortunate. Just don’t tell me I’m doing my son a disservice by holding him back from Kindergarten.