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Alpha Parenting – Preschool Edition
August 25th, 2010

About a month ago I did something that scared the bejeezus out of me: I started researching preschools.  Yes, I know, IEP is not even two yet.  Mostly I just had no idea at what age kids start going to preschool and didn’t want to miss the boat because I was lost in a state of denial thinking, “But my baby is only nine years old.  Surely he isn’t old enough to start school yet, right?”

The comforting answer to the question spurring my research was that we have two full years before we start taking first-day-of-school photos on the front porch.  The not-so-comforting follow-up information came when I started clicking into tuition pages and discovered that many of the preschools we’re considering cost more than my high school did.  This is one of the few moments when I’m glad I don’t live in Manhattan and haven’t felt pressured to start the application process every day since my second trimester.  But I digress…

As an interesting parallel to our own preschool-filled horizon I happened across this NYT article about “The Littlest Redshirts.”  Apparently it is now de rigueur to hold your child back a year in some sort of Darwinian power play to make sure that he is among the smartest, tallest, and strongest in his class.**  Not surprisingly, I am ambivalent about this.

As a September baby I always enjoyed being among the oldest in my class.  I was one of the first to drive and vote and drink (legally, at least).  Whether or not I actually did, I perceived myself as having a bit of a leg up.  And all of these things factored somewhat into our decision to shoot for an autumn baby before I got pregnant with IEP.  But in spite of our own “strategery” I have an adverse response to the idea of holding a child back to stack the deck in this way. 

Perhaps I have visions of aggressive stage parents jockeying their children for position at the top of the toddler heap.  (I certainly have visions of the scene in Baby Boom where Diane Keaton sits dejected at the playground as other alpha mommies decry her parenting techniques and shun her for not having little Elizabeth on the Dalton waiting list.)  Such visions are off-putting enough.  But I think my real objection here is the effect that this “my child is the exception” mentality has on the kids who follow the rules.

For example, say IEP was born in April.  If I enroll him in preschool the year after he turns three (as is customary, I have learned) he will be among the younger members of his class.  Kids will be up to eight months older or four months younger than my son.  Now, say I don’t like the idea of IEP being on the young end.  Say I am heavily invested in my son’s success and I want him to have every advantage.  So I hold him back a year.  Now he starts preschool as a four-year-old.  He is older, smarter, and stronger than he was a year ago and than most other kids in his class.  IEP wins!

But who loses in this scenario?  What about the child who was born in mid-August and just barely made the September 1st cutoff?  Now that child (and lots of other summer babies) are not just being stacked up against to kids who are 10 and 11 months older, but to kids who are up to a year and a half older.  By comparison they will be significantly less developed on many levels.  And I’m certainly no expert in early childhood development, but I can’t imagine that this does wonderful things for self-esteem (not to mention standardized test results which are scored in percentiles…). 

As a parent I totally understand the desire for your child to have every advantage you can hand him in this big bad world of ours.  But what does it say to your child about your confidence in him if you choose to cheat the system to give him a leg up?  And what does it teach him about how to succeed in the world if you’re willing to leave others to flounder for your own benefit?  I think the answer is: nothing good.

**Note – I’m not talking about kids who are held back for legitimate developmental reasons.  Many kids are held back because they simply aren’t ready and that is a bird of a different feather.

20 Responses to “Alpha Parenting – Preschool Edition”

  1. E Says:

    Food for thought – as the parent of many children, I had kids at all ends of the “school age spectrum”. Academically I would say that all were successful from start to finish; however, there seemed to be a substantial difference on just general happiness through many years of schooling. The older ones in their classes seemed overall happier within their education process. While I would never suggest you hold children back for a year, I think careful watching of your child helps ascertain if they are really ready for school if they are in that “do I start, don’t I start” quandry when the cutoff is within 3-4 months of their birthdate. The idea that a child is ready simply because he/she is a certain number of years old is less than perfect. One of the better decisions I made through years and years of parenting was to repeat preschool one more year rather than push on to kindergarten just because my child was 5. I needed nothing more than to observe my other children who were older or younger in their classes to make the right decision.

  2. Anne@lifeinpencil.com Says:

    Ah, but then those parents are FREAKING OUT when their kid is the first to drive, and is always leaving the house with a car full of wild kids.

    I have to say…I always liked being a January baby, and being in the “middle” of all the hoopla. Never the last to turn the next age, but never the first. And that suited me really well. I like E’s perspective–it really is so individual to the child, and should be about THEIR level of readiness.

    Ultimately, I think–perhaps–those parents from the article would do well to focus on other measures to make their kid “the best”–like spending quality time with them, teaching them new things outside school, etc, etc.

  3. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    Oooh. Tricky stuff here. Not sure what I think, but I will be checking back in to read the comments!

  4. Gale Says:

    E – Thanks for this thoughtful (and highly experienced!) response. I completely agree with you. If you hold your child back because he simply isn’t ready and you think he would be best served by another year of preschool, then that is simply responsible parenting. What I can’t abide by is the idea of holding a child back based on the idea of “beating” other kids in the class. It presupposes that all of life is a competition for limited slots in an exclusive winners’ club, rather than an opportunity to learn and grow in a way that best suits the child.

    Anne – You’re right. When your kid is the only one with a driver’s license they become the defacto chauffeur for all their friends. And that’s a situation that’s ripe for disaster (or at least plenty of stupid mishaps). I also appreciate your point that more meaningful ways to poise your child for success are to spend dedicated time reading, teaching, and experiencing new things with them.

    As an aside, I’ll also toss out here that the co-valedictorians of my highly demanding high school were both young for our class, with April and August birthdays. By the time we get to an age where our track records (academic, professional, or otherwise) can meaningfully influence our long term success the difference of 11 months is negligible.

  5. Bridget Says:

    I read something about this recently as well. It’s funny because I realized I’m obviously not one of these parents, as I see my son’s May birthday as an advantage. I can already see that his exposure to his peers that are 6-9 months his elders, as he currently is at his home care setting, have pushed him to up his game. He’s starting preschool in a couple weeks and I think being the youngest in his class is an asset. Being pushed to expand his brain at an earlier point in his development while he’s still creating new brain synapses puts him at an advantage, right?

    I’ve read (and have chosen to believe) child development studies that found the first 6 years are the most important for brain development. So I think most about how much rich instruction and exposure my son can have by the time he finishes kindergarten (which for him will be right around his 6th birthday) to put him on a good learning path for life. Now I feel bad because I never worried about his self-esteem being tarnished. So many things to feel guilty about as a parent, huh?

    I suppose the fact that my October birthday made me one of the youngest in my class yet I never suffered from poor percentile comparisons has made me not put much stock in this strategy (the late 16th and 21st b-days were annoying, but I always figured it would – and it has – even out by 30, when we start wanting to be younger). I think E is right. It is individual for each child. My mom had to push to get me to start school early because she knew I was ready even though the cut off was a few weeks earlier. My sister-in-law is trying to figure out how to get my niece (Nov b-day) to start kindergarten at age 4.8 because she’ll be ready (next fall). Another way to look at this issue is that holding a kid back unnecessarily can give a rapidly developing brain a wasted year of little challenge right when synapses are forming at their highest rate.

  6. BigLittleWolf Says:

    These are not so simple issues. I’ll say to you what I’ve said to myself through these many years of parenting: to take cues from the kids themselves.

    I had one of each, only 18 months apart, but different as night and day in temperament, development, communication styles, skills – you name it. The elder did everything early, including insisting upon going to school before he was two. So following his lead developmentally, he ended up in school a year early, which required bypassing public school and biting off the outrageous tuition of private school in first grade where he was five, then six – and in class with kids who were as old as 8 – something I find inappropriate (the “extreme” of trying to give your kid a leg up; this was an academically challenging school, and first grade!)

    I was then able to put him in public school, in second grade, when he was 6. It’s where he belonged. He was the youngest, but maturity-wise, could have skipped another year. In fact, two years later he asked to, and I said no. I’m glad I said no.

    His younger brother also placed more than a year ahead. He was tiny for his age, shy, introverted. I took my cues from his maturity, and made sure that the (public) school teachers created special challenges for him in reading and art and math (he excelled in all three). And they did.

    It was the right thing for him.

    We can’t possibly know with any certainty what is the right place / level / environment for our kids. We take our best guess, and adjust as needed. But we certainly know better than the so-called experts. At least, I’ve found that to be so, as an engaged parent.

    Good luck!

  7. Gale Says:

    Bridget – I was hoping you’d weigh in on this one! :) I had never thought of being on the younger end as an advantage. But I like your idea that your son is being pushed to excel in order to keep up with the older kids he’s around. And I’m sure there’s some truth in that. I think it speaks well of you and your parenting that you’re more concerned about your son being stimulated and challenged as a younger classmate, than coasting at the top of the ranks as one of the oldest. As I think about that in light of the “redshirting” described in the article I cited it makes me realize that parents who hold back only for competitive reasons may be focusing on their child’s performance vis-a-vis other kids, rather than against the child’s own potential. To put it more plainly: of course the average 5-year-old could outpace the average 4-year-old, but it doesn’t matter if he’s not doing the regular 5-year-old stuff.

    BLW – I agree that deciding on the basis of each individual child is certainly the appropriate path. And it sounds like you navigated that course deftly. The thing that tweaked me about this particular trend is that it sounds like parents are holding back kids who are perfectly ready to start school merely in order to put them in an advantageous position against their classmates; gaming the system in some regard. At some level (even if subtly) I think it says two things to a child: 1) Cheating is the proper way to get ahead, and 2) You wouldn’t have been “good enough” in the older grade. And I think those are dangerous messages to send.

  8. Gale Says:

    One additional thought… I find it interesting how people are saying that they loved being the relative age that they were. I liked being the oldest and found it advantageous. Anne said the same thing about being in the middle (January). And Bridget said the same thing about being in October (a full year younger than some classmates). Funny how we all come to identify and appreciate the benefits of the thing that is familar to us.

  9. E Says:

    I’m really struggling with some of the comments. At the age of 5, I’m not sure that a little child should be pushed to keep up. A parent can and should offer learning opportunities throughout early childhood (and obviously later), but if a child isn’t ready for the social setting of being in a classroom, then give him/her those stimulating opportunities in an environment where he/she is secure. As an experienced mom who wishes she’d kept an older child back and had that point driven home even more later when another sibling was kept back, I really caution today’s parents to look carefully at the child before making a decision. Education today is driven to meet the needs of all students – those who need more help, those who function perfectly in a more standardized classroom, and those who want and need more from their educational experience. At the same time there is so much to learn outside the classroom and a parent’s opportunity to take advantage of those early years when they don’t have to have their child in a classroom setting should be cherished and used to a terrific advantage.

  10. Bridget Says:

    Gale, your summary of my rambling is perfect: I’d prefer to compare my child to his or her own potential rather than other children in their class.

    [That was much more succinct. This is why it's always best to have another set of eyes edit your writing; it can usually be said more clearly with fewer words... A valuable lesson I took from our graduate school. ;) ]

    And yes, I did find it funny that we all liked our relative ages. We must be well-adjusted adults that appreciate the experiences that have shaped us (better or worse) and don’t wish a different path because that may have created a different present.

    One last caveat… I do not have elite private school pressure as my reality so it is easy for me to say that I wouldn’t “redshirt”. If my world included an expectation of admission to Harvard I bet I’d be doing whatever was required to keep my child on the competitive path. I mean my son is brilliant and all, but Ivy League admission is not anticipated.

  11. Gale Says:

    E – Thanks for chiming back in. I appreciate your honesty and candid input. I think the comments about pushing a child should be taken with a grain of salt. In echoing Bridget’s comment I did not mean to convey that any child should be pushed beyond his own capabilities. (Talk about a fast track to low self-esteem!) Rather I just meant that for a developmentally normal child on the young end of his class striving to keep up with older classmates could be a wonderful learning opportunity. Conversely, holding a child back who is ready to start school can be detrimental by creating a situation where the child may be ahead of everyone else in the class but is also un-challenged and bored out of his mind.

    I like your point, though, that if the social stimulation of school is going to overwhelm the child then it will probably curtail a great deal of other learning and could easily be provided at home. There is, however, a point at which kids have to learn how to survive outside of their home environments. In the event that a child is held back to allow for social development it seems that the parent in that situation should work in the additional year at home to expose the child to increasing levels of stimulation so that when he enters school the following year he is prepared for it.

  12. Bridget Says:

    E – I think my comment may have made “pushed” sound like I’m forcing my son to do things he’s not ready for, which was not my intention. In reality I’m a push-over and will do what makes sense at that time for the happiest child. I agree with you 100% on deciding for each child based on their readiness and I will make the final decision when he’s actually 5 and I know what he’s like at that age (or at least 4.5).

    The intention of my response was to explore the possibility that there might be a benefit to allowing a child to experience things perhaps slightly above his expected understanding. Sometimes it’s ok to not be the smartest and that surrounding a child with “older/wiser” peers may make for a valuable learning experience.

    I would have never guessed that my son could master some of the things he’s been exposed to at his sitter’s house. Because his peers there are 7 months his senior (or 25% older than him) he’s fallen into a learning path with them that has provided us with many surprises regarding his capabilities (and without extensive mothering experience like you have, I’ve been grateful for this “push” – maybe “exposure” is a better word?). I would have never known to even try to teach him things that have been relatively easy for him to ascertain. I have no idea if this will hold true for him over the next few years, but I do think it’s been valuable for him to be exposed to these kids.

    I’m free from pressure that my child be accepted to the most prestigious elementary school so intentionally stacking the deck so that he is the biggest, most mature, smartest kindergartener is not a concern when thinking about his development. I just want to give him the advantage that every parent wants; to be his best self at any age.

  13. Gale Says:

    Bridget – Now you’ve better articulated what I was trying to say. Thanks for returning the favor!

  14. Kate Says:

    Oh gosh. This is a charged issue. My daughter is a summer baby. When she went to five day preschool at four, she was among the youngest. One boy had already turned five that summer, and was held back, just because. He was ready and it would have been more appropriate for him to be in a different setting. He caused many problems in the class. Seeing this interaction, I worried a lot about sending her to Kindergarten this fall. I talked with her teachers frankly and openly. I observed her behavior, her learning style, her interactions with her peers. She IS ready. And she started school last week.
    Am I giving her the best opportunity? I think so. Whatever age you send your children to school, you need to be ever vigilant to mark sure their needs are being met. It is harder as they get bigger.

    I also want to note that one of her best friends from three year old preschool is staying back. It is the right choice for him. Each family needs to look at their children. But holding them back just to allow another year to pass doesn’t strike me as any favor.

  15. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Chiming back in days later… and not sure I was particularly lucid when I responded the other day. My elder was ready – emotionally, developmentally, verbally, in terms of reason, and thus, putting him in a situation where he was a year ahead of many of his pals (Sept birthday) was absolutely the right thing for him. When he asked to be pushed ahead another year – which he could’ve done academically and even emotionally, I said no. I did so because I wanted him to enjoy his childhood, and not find himself in college at the age of 16, with kids who were 18 and 19 at the time.

    It turned out to be the right decision.

    For my younger, who was intellectually ready but emotionally immature (shy) and tiny for his age, keeping him with his peers, age-wise, was just right. The school wanted to push him ahead and I said no. What they did instead was make an exception to the gifted program rules (this, in public school), move him into gifted reading and gifted math with older kids, but keep him based in his own age-appropriate class.

    The point I’m making by clarifying – even public schools will work with parents to find hybrid solutions for kids. I admit, I was very involved in particular during the elementary years. Though I worked a full-time job, I made sure my employer allowed me flexibility to “drop in” on elementary classes, to volunteer, to run projects. I was lucky my employer did so, and because I was so involved at a classroom level, the teachers simply figured out what would be best for my kids, worked it out among themselves, and executed.

  16. Nicki Says:

    Gale – It is truly an individual decision. With six kids, I have had all kinds of experiences with both preschool, Catholic schools and public schools. I am about, even with the baby being 16, a totally new school experience this September.

    First, NYS’s cutoff for school is December 1 so as a Sept birthday, I was always one of the youngest kids in my class. I started college while still 17, not legal to vote or drink at that point in time.

    My six kids had a variety of preschool experiences. I was working full time with babies #1 through #3 so they started preschool, in an all day program at the university where the ex works, at 2. #4 also started there at 2 but only stayed until 4. This same preschool had a registered all day kindergarten – at the time the public school where we lived did not have full day kindergarten – but we never sent a child to that kindergarten.

    #1 is a late November baby. We held him back a year so he was almost 6 when he started kindergarten. He had been in a full day learning situation since age 2. It was the right decision for him. He went to a Catholic school for full day kindergarten.

    #2 and #3 were January babies (the twins). They went to preschool full day for two years and a half day preschool (money was the overwhelming issue) for one year before attending a full day Catholic kindergarten. #2 had a diagnosed severe articulation problem that was caught at age 2. Intensive speech therapy five times a week for over a year and then at lesser rates had him ready for school at age 5.

    #4 had the same speech issue as #2 (though no professional would confirm it, there is only 16 months age difference and she was just patterning what she heard). She did one year of full day preschool and two years of half day with speech therapy but never five times a week as her problem was not as severe. She was my first public school from kindergarten on child.

    #5 went to preschool for a half day for two years. I sent him to what the school district calls early kindergarten. He is a late October birthday and had a speech impediment. By having him in the school building, he received speech therapy and was ready for kindergarten the following year. His kindergarten and EK were both only half days but I was home working at that time so it was not as big a deal.

    #6 is a late July birthday. He did not go to preschool at all. By the time he was 2, my marriage had ended and I was the single mom of 6. Not only could I not afford preschool, I was working outside the home full time and had no way to get him there. Did I feel bad? Yes. Did it stunt his learning? Not a bit. The screening process suggested he needed to go to Early Kindergarten. I fought it and he did not go. At the end of kindergarten, the building principal and I had words again. He wanted Dan – due mostly to the date of his birth and the way he was holding a pencil – to go to a program called Transitional First. I would not have it. The principal called me a bad mother. He swore that this would all catch up to my son by fourth grade. Well, he is entering 11th grade and has a high 80′s overall average in high school. It would be better if he liked to read but English is his downfall.

    As I have said on many occasions, I wish schools would understand that we, as parents, know our children best. While there are some issues that may need professional intervention, sometimes a school just does not see the whole child and recommends things that a parent knows are not right for THAT child.

  17. Gale Says:

    Nicki – My goodness, you could write a book! Thanks so much for this long and thoughtful comment. I really appreciate the perspective of people who have logged thousands more hours as parents than I have. I certainly agree that knowing your child and making decisions based on the child (and not on what the system dictates) is the best way to approach education. You obviously took your kids on an individual basis and did what was right for each. What astounds me about the article I referenced was that evidently not all parents take this approach. And I think that’s quite a shame.

  18. Laura H. Says:

    I think it is interesting that the general view has changed from contemplating holding a child back if their birthdays are 1-2 months from the cutoff date, to contemplating holding back if they 3-4 months from the cutoff date. I totally think it is a child-by-child decision and that schools understand that it is a child-by-child decision which is why they give parents feedback at the time of the kindergarten screening.
    But I also appreciate it that many schools are pushing back for the parents who think 3-4 months before the cutoff date is young, by having rules about students not playing sports once he/she is 19. Hopefully that rule will help quash the parents who truly are trying to hold back their kids so their kids can be bigger and better than other kids since it would jeopardize playing sports their senior year.
    Our kindergarten experience though is that parents are planning pregnancies similar to you Gale. Of the 19 kids in M’s kindergarten class, 14 of them turned 6 by mid-December. M is a late June birthday, so she “waited” a long time to turn 6 (and to lose a tooth)!

  19. Gale Says:

    Laura – Thanks for this comment. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that we’re not the only ones “planning” (you know, to the extent that you can plan these things) for fall babies. Nevertheless, it hadn’t occurred to me that such planning would result in classes that were so heavily front-loaded on birthdays. So, in that case, for all our efforts to give our child an advantage with an early birthday, they’re really just tracking right along with everyone else because they are all (for the most part) exactly the same age. I guess when everybody tries the same strategy the strategic advantage rather falls apart.

    Also, I didn’t know that some schools were cutting off athletic eligibility at age 19. For parents who are holding back for the wrong reasons (especially those with athletic aspirations for their children) that is probably a huge disincentive. Interesting how their regulating things in high school to influence the matriculation of 5-year-old. I am utterly fascinated by strategic incentives of all stripes. They show up in the unlikeliest of places.

  20. michelle Says:

    My son has an early June bday and is small. But he is a quick learner and bright. We went ahead and put him in kindergarten even though so many people suggested we wait! It frustrates me…..i don’t think I should hold my kid back just so he can be a little bigger….or for “athletic reasons” when he gets to high school. If we waited another year he would just be bored….
    I was a little surprised to realize how many people wait another year! Especially the boys. I think they are usually doing their kid ( and everyone else’s with a summer bday) a diservice….unless of course there are other reasons.