"I got paid $100 for that shot," one of my players told me as we warmed up for our basketball game, referring to a close-range layup the prior week. No, I'm not an NBA coach. The player wasn't referring to some elaborate point shaving scheme cooked up by would-be sports agents to high school prodigies. The player was six years old.
The kid's parents had paid him to make a basket. I was floored. Speechless. He said it in passing like it didn't really matter, like even he thought it was kind of weird.
Pretty soon the boys were laughing and chasing each other around cones I had set up, trying without much success to dribble the miniature balls while playing tag. Clearly, having fun was way more important to this kid than any parent's $100 payout. But it stuck with me as a sign of something profoundly wrong with our generation of parents, and a potential danger to the generation of kids, especially boys, that we are raising.
It reminded me of what a kindergarten teacher at a private school in Boston recently told me: "I was cornered by an applicant's father who asked that if he sent his child to me in pre-K, could I promise that his child would get into to Harvard in 14 years."
Most particularly it made me think of the increasing number of families who are holding back their sons at the age of five, particularly in private schools, in order to increase their competitive advantage, following, perhaps without knowing it consciously, the line of thinking that has been used to produce professional hockey players.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the odd distribution of birth months among NHL players. In Canada, youth hockey is a highly policed sport where players are registered strictly by calendar year. The oldest, therefore, at each level are those born earliest in the year. Just by virtue of age they tend to be bigger and stronger. Gladwell argues convincingly that a disproportionate number of successful hockey players end up being born in the first few months of the year (see graph below). This selection process starts as early as age 8, and the effect persists all the way up to the NHL. It has been very consistent over time.
I asked one admissions officer what he says to the parents of boys entering kindergarten about the idea of holding their son back. He said, "I often tell parents that if allowing their children to be on the older end, rather than the younger end, results in any of the following: starting for a sports team as opposed to sitting on the bench; being one of the first to drive as opposed to one of the last (huge social advantage); the possibility they will be an A and B student as opposed to a B and C student; (for the dads) getting the girl or not getting the girl, then it is worth considering." (All the sources for this article asked to remain anonymous given the sensitive nature of their day-to-day relationships with children and their parents.)
But a different admissions officer disagreed strongly: "The trend is disgusting, but it fits with any arms race or conflict cycle model. I've been wondering more broadly about what age we push kids through all the school factories. All they have in common is age and since they all develop at different ages, that system often makes little sense anyway."
What I have noticed is that more and more boys are being held back. As a result, the classroom dynamic is changing so that the kids who play by the rules are disadvantaged by those who are bigger and more mature. As one teacher put it, "While I do believe there are some cases where a child is served well by being slightly older, I do not think this is true for most children. The problem we repeatedly run into is that as some parents hold their children back, it wreaks havoc on the class dynamic and turns a pre-K classroom into an 'almost kindergarten' one."
If we keep our curriculum to what we feel is age-appropriate, we get parents who demand to know why we don't challenge their child. If we cater to those in the class who are developmentally more advanced, we lose those children who are being children and are developmentally where they should be. I would argue that those children, both boys and girls, who are pushed at an early age, end up at a social disadvantage later on, as not enough attention was given to their emotional development, and far too much was given to developing skill sets. It is also these children who lose their love of school. Most children want to participate in pretend play, for instance, but it is shocking to see those who have already internalized the idea that pretend play is too young for them, and that being older is somehow more important."
A psychologist in Boston who works intensively with children agreed with the danger in holding boys back: "The press to perceive a child's development in a competitive, cutthroat 'I win you, you lose' mindset ... appears to be extending to younger and younger ages. Although delaying school for a year may ... benefit individual children, the larger pattern seems likely to fuel collective anxiety among parents and children in destructive ways."
Part of this problem is gender-based. "We know that the development of verbal skills for boys at that age can be 12 to 18 months behind girls, yet they are in the same classrooms with similar, if not identical, expectations," said one admissions officer.
A kindergarten teacher commented, "Many schools set up their classroom and schedules to reflect a typical girl learner, not a young boy. Asking a 4 or 5-year-old boy to sit at a table and do prolonged work with a pencil and paper is asking far too much, and yet if we examine the kindergarten or first-grade schedule, they are shuffled from room to room, subject to subject, and we slowly take away their time to play and make independent choices, and recess becomes a distant memory to many fifth-graders. I watch parents as they tour our school and see the anxiety on their faces as they realize that their child is not 'ready' for all this."
Fessenden and Dexter (where JFK famously attended) are both private schools in Boston exclusively for boys. These schools neutralize the argument that boys need to be held back to keep up with girls by teaching them separately. Yet the issue isn't purely about boys keeping up with girls. It's about parents putting pressure on their very small kids and the teachers who teach them even when boys are being taught in an all-male environment.
"There are those families that enter with the attitude that they are paying for education and the play-based curriculum in the younger grades makes no sense to them," said one Boston-area teacher. "I will never forget the conference where the parent asked me repeatedly if his 5-year-old was in the top third, middle third, or bottom third of the class. My answer of how that was an inappropriate ranking of a kindergarten child made no impression on him. He explained that he needed to know if this expense was really worth it. There is an enormous lack of appreciation for childhood these days -- people see it merely as preparation for the rest of life, and there is not recognition of the inherent value of childhood experiences."
In the end the issue is about the kids and about how we collectively define learning. Perhaps the intense pressure at a young age amongst those financially capable of sending their kids to private school stems from a national public education system that is profoundly broken, where many kids cannot even read to grade level. Perhaps there is a feeling that if one's son doesn't have every advantage, they will not only not get into Harvard, they will fall between the cracks and become part of the unfortunate mass of undereducated and under-employed young people in our country.
Still, the Race to Nowhere, as a recent film calls it, does more harm than good -- whether boys are learning to play basketball or read a book. They don't really care if they are winning. They just want to play and read.
As parents we should know better than to put our anxiety on our kids like some kind of disease. Education is supposed to be an adventure, one that is largely directed by the child's own passions and inspirations. When it is working well, you see the child's eyes light up like a Christmas tree when he discovers something new and eagerly wants to tell you about it. It isn't a competition. There is no fixed amount of learning that goes into kindergartens across the country, and for which each family has to fight for more than their share. It is quite the opposite: Learning grows like a weed among children when it is shared. One child reinforces another's learning. It's as much a process for the group as the individual.
Yet despite all the negative indications of the broader trend, there are some cases when holding back a child does make sense.
One parent told me, "I have two boys who are summer birthdays -- one is now 28 and the other is 17. My wife, a teacher, and I chose to allow them to be older. While we do not pat ourselves on the back for our parenting, we do for this decision. Our older son had an unbelievable senior year in high school where he emerged as a very good athlete (late bloomer), his academics came together, and he won a bunch of awards -- none of which would not have happened if he had graduated a year earlier! His confidence level going off to college was sky high, which I don't believe would have been the case if he had not had the extra year. Our younger son, a June 1 birthday, had his struggles from an early age and is finally finding himself as a high school junior. Again, our thoughts as parents are that we cannot imagine him ready for college this year, but are very pleased and comfortable with his trajectory and readiness for college next year."
An administrator recently recalled, "A few years ago, my best friend since fourth grade told me that he wished he had repeated. Frankly, I was stunned by this statement because while I knew he was the youngest in our prep school class with a November birthday, I also know that he graduated first in our class in high school, first in his class in college, and first in his Ph.D. program at Stanford. I called him on this statement and asked why he felt that way and his response was, 'I was a late bloomer both socially and athletically. I was going to be smart regardless of which class I was in, but my overall experience in school would have been much more positive if I had had that extra time to develop in areas I was desperate to be successful and comfortable.'"
Maybe we should return to the core principals of what kindergarten is for. This doesn't mean we should never hold back a kid, but it should be the exception instead of the rule. And we must to do more to relieve the competitive pressure among parents and focus instead on how to serve the needs of kids.
"It constantly comes back to expectations," one teacher told me. "What do we teachers expect of our students? What do the parents expect of us? What do the parents expect of their children? An administrator recently told me her mantra is whatever works for the students. What she meant by this was that no matter how difficult the decision, she would always do what she felt would benefit the students, even if that meant firing a teacher, having a tough dissuasion with a parent, changing a school routine, or dispensing with a school tradition. It could all be done if it meant that the students would benefit. It is a motto we could all learn from, as schools these days are so bogged down with competition and politics that we often forget that schools exist to serve students."
Amen to that.
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