Friday, August 29, 2008

A Big Dose of Defensiveness

A recent post by my good friend Andrea got me thinking. OK, that's not an accurate statement because the truth of the matter is that this is something I have been thinking about pretty intensely for the past two plus years. Her post reignited the internal debate I've been struggling with for some time.

Let me say this upfront so I do not mask this response in general terms: My six-year-old twin boys start kindergarten next week. Yup, they are six. Yup, they are heading to kindergarten. And while we're attempting full disclosure-- They are heading to kindergarten at a private school.

So clearly this means you know exactly what sort of parents my husband and I are. From media accounts discussing this issue of 'holding' children back to enter kindergarten at a later date than the typical age five (a.k.a. "redshirting"), it seems clear that we are upper middle class folks who are intensely concerned about our children getting into elite colleges, so much so that we are starting the process of their Harvard applications now (and probably tutoring them in Chinese and logarithms, while providing them cello and fencing lessons). And further, you might also conclude that by 'abandoning' public schools and raising the age on entering kindergarten, we don't care about poor kids who don't have the same opportunities to make these choices as we do and are directly responsible of widening the gap between "the haves" and "have nots" in this country.

Defensive, much? Well, maybe. Well, probably.

I guess my point of writing about this falls under the category of "Let me tell you my side of the story." Did my husband and I struggle with the decision of our boys' school placement? We sure did. Do I still question myself about whether or not we made the right decision? I sure do. Do I hope that my guys benefit from our decision? Of course, I do. It's the parent I've never met (and I've been a teacher for about seventeen years so I've met a lot) who intentionally makes decisions regarding their own children with the hopes that these decisions will intentionally hurt his/her child.

Suddenly this topic seems one of those 'zero sum' ones, you know, like the whole stay-at-home mom versus the working mom debate where shades of grey are not always appreciated nor the recognition of others' points of view as valid. I've always thought that moms are especially harsh on other moms' decisions because certain decisions are so difficult or painful or tortured, some moms simply cannot allow for someone else doing something different as 'right,' making their choice therefore 'wrong.' I managed to find many a post and lots of comments about this very topic across the parenting blog world, and boy, a lot of folks would be quick to brand my husband and me as 'hopped up' or messed up or sneakily subverting rules or ultra competitive or just plain crazy (read, for instance, the 144 comments here).

Well, the very term "redshirting" gets my hackles up. It comes originally from collegiate athletics when an athlete may sit out a season, due to injury or in hopes to gain physical advantage, so that s/he can play on a team as an older and potentially bigger participant. By associating a parent's choice to start a child in school when he or she is socially, emotionally and/or academically ready with this collegiate athletic term, folks are couching this decision in competition: That the decision to start a kid at six has everything to do with the kid doing better than others, giving him/her an advantage over others in academics or sports. Do you as a parent make your children eat vegetables so that they can be bigger and stronger and healthier than other kids? I think most of us are pushing the broccoli so our kids can be healthy period. No competition there.

And if there is one definitive answer when a child is ready for kindergarten why does the cut-off date for kindergarten entrance differ from state to state? For instance, a child who turns five in October could enter kindergarten at the age of four if she lives in Maryland or Michigan or Montana, but not if her family suddenly moves to Massachusetts or Minnesota or Mississippi. My older sons were born in late July. They would not have been eligible to enter kindergarten last year if we lived in Indiana, but wait, the twins were born a month early--putting their actual due date to late August-- what if we took that into consideration? Suddenly they would be ineligible for kindergarten in Alaska, or maybe in Washington or Kansas or a number of other states if they were just born a few days late. This range of cut-off dates is six months (that's from July 1st to January 1st) and that's a pretty significant amount of time for little folks' development. Are kids across the board in Connecticut just more mature and more skilled than all kids in Indiana? This range makes me suspect that kindergarten cut-off dates are semi-arbitrary having a bit to do, perhaps, with true kindergarten readiness and more to do with funding and testing and scores and politics.

So truly, bottom line, what's our reason for having the boys enter kindergarten this year instead of last? It's not an academic one. Both of the twins are solid academically and frankly, with no boastfulness here, would likely be advanced skill-wise even if they entered first grade next week. They read chapter books, solve sudoku puzzles, and can identify more countries on the African continent than I can.

But school you see, is not just about academics, and giving a child time is not just about getting ahead academically. I am a believer that the social and emotional well being of kids is as important, if not more so, than their academic selves. My twins are young socially and emotionally. They cry easily, become frustrated quickly, and have trouble letting anything go, and one in particular struggles heartily with perfectionism, self-doubt, and anxiety. They are going into their fourth school setting in four years AND for the first time in their lives, they will be away from each other (in separate classrooms) for significant periods of time. Kindergarten for them will not be about learning their letter sounds or writing their names or one-to-one counting correspondence. Kindergarten, for my sons, is all about learning to cope with disappointment, to express their frustrations with words and not always tears, to make friendships with kids on their own and learn the give-and-take friendships require.

And because we knew these specific things were what these specific boys need, we found a school that believes in the same philosophy about children and education as we do-- a school that focuses on the social curriculum, that believes in class meetings to discuss issues, that recognizes the importance of play and singing and running around and reading aloud every day and no homework until fourth grade. And you know what? We couldn't afford to send our boys there and we were bummed, but registered them for a different school, our local public one, that would be just fine. And then you know what? Through an incredible twist of fate, I was offered a job at that more-than-fine school and with that job came partial tuition remission. And even with that tuition help, it still will be a sacrifice to have our boys go there. But we believe in education and want to do right by these boys, and we've made a choice to put our money there instead of a second car or a grand vacation or or even a mortgage (we're still renters). And yet we still well understand how blessed we are that we can make such choices.

And in a few years when we need to decide what's right for our third son (born mid-September, by the way), we will assess his needs and our family's situation and we will make a decision that aligns with both of these things.


Anonymous said...

Oh, I am SO glad I broke my no-blog-on-weekends rule.

California has a cut-off in December! But that's for public school. Private schools are July or September. So, kids going into private school automatically start later.

If I were just trying to do what is best for Z academically, he would start next fall (if he does public school -- his birthday is early September). I fear he will be bored starting later. BUT, he is NOT a socially advanced kid. So, he will probably wait.

His brother on the other hand? Is 23 months younger but will probably be one grade behind. He is just more sophisticated socially.

Also, since everyone else is holding kids back, a kid who does not do well being the absolute youngest will be thrown into a class of kids a year or more older. Well, that doesn't work.

As to private school -- it is all about class size in our case. And, if we can afford choices, we will make choices. That's what you do for your kids.

Anonymous said...

Also, if no child left behind hadn't ruined all the public schools, more people would be committed to trying them.

Jennifer said...

I think parents should be able to approach this situation on a case by case basis. And if a parent isn't entirely sure, there are good people out there (speaking for psychologists who work with kids and parents) who are willing to help families and go to bat for them if at all possible.

The fact that the boys are facing yet another new school is an important variable. And that fact that they will be in separate classrooms is important too, and better for them to be in a situation where there is some flexibility in the classroom to help them through this new experience. I asked one your guys yesterday how he felt about being in a different classroom than his brother. He said, "I'm going to miss him. He's my best friend."

So good for you for doing what is best for them and advocating strongly for them. That's all that matters.

Andrea said...

Whoa! I didn't mean to set off your fuse (and nothing was meant to be judgemental about other parents in my post...least of all about you...but more about school policies in general pushing the kidnergarten age up). You're really not going to like my today's post about private/public schools...