Years ago, if you turned five years old by the school cut-off, your parents sent you up the stairs of the bus with a pencil box, bologna and mustard on white bread in a tin lunchbox, and the confidence that you’d figure everything out. If you were five years old, you went to kindergarten. Period.
These days, any birthday later than Memorial Day seems to fall in the gray zone. My youngest, Finn, turned five last June and my husband and I devoted approximately three and a half seconds of serious thought to holding him back. Our entire lack of consideration to redshirting him seemed to surprise some people, some of whom had pretty vocal opinions on the matter.
To outside observers, Finn probably appears hyper, unruly, and, well, naughty. He’s our wild child. Finn pushes boundaries and the virtual buttons that test everyone’s patience. He questions our authority, has a voice that carries like a megaphone (especially in the library), and has mastered the art of sarcasm typically reserved for teens (the little dude actually saluted me when I threatened to pull the car over if he didn’t stop antagonizing his older brother in the back seat). In addition to all of his other wonderful gifts, I believe that Finn is here to teach me patience (and maybe the cleaning tips needed to remove marker and handprints from light gray walls). Yep, Finn’s a handful, which is one of the reasons why his tiny little butt needed to go to kindergarten.
Much of the redshirting discussion, especially as it relates to boys, relates to maturity level. Was my “young” five-year-old socially ready for the structure and social interactions that come with a full-day school day? Was he going to able to keep it together for an entire day while listening to instructions, losing any opportunity for a nap, and adhering to the strict protocol that accompanies all teachers’ needs to lead an orderly classroom? We had no idea and, truthfully, we didn’t expect his kindergarten year to be a smooth ride. There was going to be a transition, a period of time when my little hooligan was going to go through kindergarten boot camp and realize which conduct was acceptable and which would get him sent to the “safe seat.”
By his second month of school, I had received more than one phone call from his teacher that started out, “We’ve had a rough day…” and Finn experienced every form of “redirection” short of being sent to the principal’s office. Finn was learning an entirely new level of “sharing,” working through the unwritten social rules of recess, and coming to terms with the fact that he couldn’t break out into Elvis dance moves when he was supposed to be standing quietly in line.
Here’s the deal. What some people see as Finn’s behavior, is really just his personality. There’s a difference. Holding him back a year wouldn’t have mattered; he would have just entered kindergarten as a crazy six-year-old with a few new Elvis moves. Sure, the first few weeks of school were tough, but then something happened. The calls from his teacher stopped. A switch got flipped, and he graduated from big-school boot camp. He was still the class clown, but he figured out when he needed to pull it together and when he could let loose. He realized that it was better to get the teacher’s attention by being her helper than by being her problem. That’s progress, progress that he wouldn’t have made had he spent another year in Pre-K where he would have tormented his teachers out of boredom and fooled the three-year-olds into thinking that he was actually Batman.
Don’t get me wrong. There are legitimate reasons for holding a five-year-old back a year. It’s not uncommon for kids this age to still have accidents or require naps to get through their day. For some, the thought of being away from home causes them more anxiety than any five-year-old should burden. If going to kindergarten will actually hurt a child’s development or negatively impact their perception of school going forward, waiting another year might be the best thing for them. There’s no hard-and-fast rule – each child is different, special, and unique. We just tried to keep in mind that, no matter how much we prepared, Finn was never going to be 100% ready for kindergarten. It’s kind of like becoming a parent for the first time. You can do all the prep you want, but when they hand you that newborn, you’re going to feel like you need another nine months to grow up and get your life together.
Finn was still four years old at the time of kindergarten enrollment last spring and, although he seemed so incredibly little at the time, we just made sure we knew enough to make an informed decision. My husband and I spoke with his Pre-K teachers, reviewed his assessments, and talked to him as much as we could about what he could expect in the classroom. Some parenting decisions benefit from community input and others, well, just take a gut feeling to know you’re doing the right thing. We had to go with our gut on this one and, on the first day of school, we sent Finn on the bus with a pencil case, ham sandwich in a Ninja Turtles backpack, and the confidence that he’d figure everything out. And he has.