On July 8th, 60 Minutes re-ran a story they originally aired earlier this year called “Redshirting.”
Have you heard of it? Here’s how the show introduced it: “Kindergarten ‘redshirting’ is on the rise. That’s the practice of parents holding their children back from kindergarten so they can start school at age six — older, bigger and more mature than their five-year-old peers. Some research shows that ‘redshirting’ will give these youngsters an edge in school, and maybe even in life. But is it fair? After all, as Morley Safer reports, boys are twice as likely to be held back as girls. Whites more than minorities. And the rich ‘redshirt’ their kids more than the poor.”
Halfway through the story, I heard a familiar name: Malcolm Gladwell, the Canadian author. (He was born in England, grew up in rural Ontario, went to the University of Toronto and now lives in New York City.) Apparently, he referenced “redshirting” in his book, Outliers, but it didn’t register with me back when I read it. According to Gladwell, “In that part of the book, I’m talking about a concept called ‘cumulative advantage’ and that is the idea that a little extra nudge ahead when you’re six can mean that you’re slightly better positioned when you’re seven, and that means you’re slightly better positioned when you’re eight, and so on. And you can see this pattern in one field after another.”
Gladwell was referring to studies that show a majority of Canadian junior all-star hockey players had one thing in common: They were all born in the first half of the year. In Canada, the birthday cutoff for junior hockey is January 1st, similar to many public school boards. Holding a child back so they can play on a team with younger kids, thus putting them at a competitive advantage, is known as the ‘Jock Effect’.
Whether for sports or education, the theory is that the older kids get more attention because they look more able, their skills are developed that much further and this continues to perpetuate over time. The data also shows that the older kids do better socially and become leaders, thus almost guaranteeing their popularity status, too.
Is there a negative? Some experts, including Samuel Meisels, president of Chicago’s Erikson Institute, listed a few for the news show, including more dropouts among children who are held back, behavioral challenges (perhaps due to boredom) and conflicting reports on increased achievement. “At best we could conclude that the research is split on this and there’s another moral lesson for the parents, which I know most parents don’t wanna hear, and that is this is inequitable,” he said.
As Gladwell admits, “The irony, of course, is that the kinds of parents who are doing this are the parents whose children are the least at risk.” Some school systems (and sports teams) are cracking down on ‘redshirting’ by implementing strict guidelines for age categories. (In our town, we have to show our child¹s birth certificate when we sign them up for hockey.)
In the past, people wanted their kids to skip a grade to get the competitive edge. It appears they had it all wrong.
How far would you go to ensure your kid was smarter, stronger and more popular than his peers?