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Spencer Rendahl: Redshirt Tale

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

(Spencer)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.

Well,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 red shirting, 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.

Most 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 red shirting 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 red shirting completely.

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

As 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 school.

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

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

Suzanne Spencer Rendahl is a former journalist whose work has appeared in publications including the Boston Globe. She lives with her husband and two children in Plainfield, NH.
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