Spencer Rendahl: Redshirt Tale

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(Host)  With another school year underway, former journalist and commentator
Suzanne Spencer Rendahl is considering the effects of Redshirting, or holding
kids back a year from starting kindergarten, a practice that has, in recent years, gained
national attention.

As I watched a coed children’s baseball game last summer, I heard two
mothers discuss their decisions to hold their sons back so they’d start
kindergarten a year older.

"I wanted him to start at the top of
the heap," said one matter-of-factly. The other agreed. "It’s so
important for boys to have good self-esteem."

One of them turned
to me as my daughter stepped up to bat. "She’s so tiny," the mother
observed. "It’s strange, since you and your husband are tall."

she is on the small side," I replied. "But she’s also the youngest in
her grade. She made the cutoff by a few days, and she’s in the same
class as kids up to 18 months older. So naturally, there’ll be a big
size difference."

The practice of holding kids back so that they
start kindergarten a year older, termed "redshirting," is currently in
the national spotlight. It’s tripled since 1970, with boys twice as
likely as girls to be held back.

A few years after my daughter
was born one late September night, Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller
"Outliers" hit bookstores and became the talk of preschool parents.
Gladwell argued that children born just after the kindergarten
enrollment cutoff date automatically have a significant advantage –
compounded over time – over those born later in the year.

parents – myself included – try to help their children succeed in life.
During my daughter’s infancy, I boned up on my Spanish and helped her
learn it. Private music lessons, elite preschools, and sports camps for
4-year-olds are not uncommon.

But while I believe there can be
good reasons to hold kids back, I think there’s a fairness issue in
redshirting kids solely to give them the size and maturity advantage
over others that only comes with age. The idea of gaming the system to
put a kid "at the top of the heap" – while legal in Vermont and New
Hampshire – implies pushing another kid towards the bottom, likely one
from a family that can’t afford an extra year of preschool. Last year
the Chicago public school system banned redshirting completely.

some experts question whether holding kids back actually helps them.
They cite studies showing that while redshirting may give older kids
confidence, younger ones may be challenged more, and hence learn more.

kindergarten approached, my husband and I debated about holding our
daughter back. After her preschool teachers deemed her more than ready,
we decided that it was better to be the kindergartner who was the
smallest, youngest, and possibly the most challenged – instead of the
oldest and possibly the most bored – and we put her on the bus to

now, two years later, as she grounds a ball to get on base and reads
Harry Potter, part of me thanks the redshirted kids for challenging her
so much.

But other times – when I see her small size compared to the redshirted kids – I still question the fairness of it all.

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