OMG . . . When to Start Kindergarten?!

Are you stressed out by kindergarten? Wait- I should clarify- do you have a kid who is not even in kindergarten and yet, and are stressed out the decision of when to start kindergarten? If your kiddos are really young or have a birthday in the first few months of the year, you may not be aware that kindergarten is quite stressful. Well, kindergarten itself may not be stressful, but the decision about when to begin kindergarten is stressful.

My son has a summer birthday, and until about two years ago, I blissfully assumed he would start kindergarten the fall immediately after he turned five. Because that’s the normal thing to do, I thought. I started kindergarten when I was four so being almost a whole year older made complete sense. Why in the world would we wait until he’s 6? Oh- because there is this whole annoying phenomenon of holding kids (especially boys) back a year. While I understand that some kids may not be ready, and that boys often need a bit more time for social and emotional development, the sense I’ve gotten is that these are not always the reasons that parents are holding kids back.

Redshirting: Lack of Readiness or Perceived Advantage?

Lack of Readiness

The age that a child starts kindergarten has obvious implications for their future. For example, for their entire school life, will they be older, younger or similar age to their classmates? This might not seem like a big deal, but for some parents your child might be significantly older or younger depending on your decision to wait or start kindergarten. 4, 5, or 6-year-olds are often in a kindergarten class together. These children will vary greatly in their cognitive, social and emotional abilities, not only in their kindergarten year, but beyond.


Though your child may seem ready for kindergarten, if they are on the young side it’s hard to know: will they be “ready” for all of the other years in school academically, socially, and emotionally? It’s impossible to know, and this is a large part of what creates stress for me about the decision. With a year to go, I am fairly confident that my 4yo (who will be 5 one month before school starts) will be ready. But then I start to worry about later on down the road. Will he keep up later on? Will he fall behind? Will it be my fault?

Perceived Advantage

Why am I so worried? It’s not really because of my son and his abilities- he’s pretty smart (I’m biased, I know). Instead, deciding about when to start kindergarten stresses me out because of my concerns about what other people may be doing. From what I can gather from conversations with teachers, parents of older kids, and buzz within my circle of friends, kids are getting held back for a potential advantage, or to avoid a disadvantage.

Think about it: if your son is 15 on the freshman football team, he’s in a better position than the kid who just turned 14. And if your kid has had another year to develop not only physically but mentally, and is taking his SATs as an 18-year-old instead of a 17-year-old, well then he (or she) might do better, and therefore look better on college applications. Redshirting for (perceived) advantage is pretty messed up if you ask me.

Part of the issue, I realize, is that this might be an “urban myth.” Are parents really holding their kids back for an advantage? Maybe parents are holding their kids back because they truly feel their kids aren’t ready. But I’m not confident in my “urban myth” hypothesis, because it wouldn’t surprise me if parents are holding their kids back to get an edge over others.

We are Privileged

I live in a community where you need to have a certain amount of money to live here. I often feel as if we’re middle class because we live in a townhouse in our area, and there are people with a lot more money than us. But you know what? We’re upper class. I feel slightly guilty about this sometimes. I love where we live: it’s clean, it’s safe, and there are great schools. I dislike that there isn’t much diversity (I grew up in a VERY diverse city and went to college in NYC). However, this is a trade-off I am willing to make.

I am a product of the privilege I have had in my life (but don’t get me wrong, my husband and I also work hard), and it would be wrong to ignore the fact that our sons will likely have advantages in life simply because of their gender, the color of their skin, and our economic status. (Side note: our goal is to raise them to be kind, respectful, and aware of this privilege so that they don’t take advantage of it).

We already live in a place where kids have an advantage, so it really makes me angry to think that parents are trying to get more of an advantage by holding their kids back. I also get angry at people who hold their kids back because they’re making me second-guess myself and what I know to be true about my son and his readiness. The parents who allegedly make the choice to redshirt to get an advantage are making me feel like I need to play by their rules (which aren’t fair or equal) or my son will end up being at a disadvantage. No one really wants their child to be at a disadvantage. This is what peer pressure feels like as an adult. So of course I want to push back against it, say “F*** it” and enroll my kid in kindergarten because I think he’ll be ready, and because I don’t want to play by those unfair rules.

Having an advantage

I do want to say I’m not mad about all of the advantages that some kids will have; it would be hypocritical for me to get upset about some kids having advantage over others because my kids will have advantages over others too. I’m really not placing judgement on what others value. Not everyone can afford the extra support, the special travel teams or the other extras that families of a certain economic status have access to. Those of us who can are very fortunate.

However, kids of privilege already have enough (money, support, advantage) so why should parents widen that gap by holding their kid back another year? Why, on top of that would someone try to get even more of an advantage over other kids? For what? What if your kid doesn’t even like football by the time he gets to high school? What if your child feels like an outsider because the rest of us stuck to our guns and enrolled our kids at 5? What if your kid is bored and disrupts the class?

I get that there may be no firm answers to these questions- it’s all speculation and we won’t know for our child until we get there. Though there is research that can guide us, it’s so easy to say “but my child is different than that” or “what if my child is the one who doesn’t fit what research says?” I feel so conflicted about this that I actually got a professional’s perspective on the subject: Keely Buchanan’s job is to help “connect parents with resources and best practices for navigating the Preschool and Kindergarten search”.

OMG…When to Start Kindergarten?!

I find it very frustrating that it isn’t simple to make a decision about something that shouldn’t be such a big deal. It’s only kindergarten after all. I’m honestly more stressed about the kindergarten choice than I am about college. Which is funny, because if I “choose wrong” and start him too early or too late in kindergarten, I could be messing up his future for college entirely. Right? I sure hope not. Though I am slightly kidding, it’s amazing that I do feel more stress around this one decision than I think I’ll feel when it comes time to decide for college (But at that point, it’s more of his decision than mine).

What I don’t want is that my kids are at a disadvantage because of a choice I made when they were 5. Well, one kid. The second is born after his school year’s cut off, so the decision is made for me. Thank goodness.

Is Redshirting All Bad?

Knowing when to start kindergarten can be stressful. The decision is more challenging when it seems other parents are holding their kids back to get an advantage.
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So what if I decide to hold my son back? If he really isn’t ready, then redshirting can be a good thing short-term. But, there’s research that kids can get bored when they start school later so this advantage can quickly become a disadvantage. That makes me worry for my kid but also makes me sad for the kids who are held back to be at an advantage later on.

I do think that parents should be able to make decisions for their own kids and if your child really needs one more year to be ready for kindergarten, then by all means, take it. If my son needs it, I’ll take it too. (Actually, I’ll probably just have him do two years of kindergarten). But, parents who are hoping to shift the odds in their kid’s favor by waiting an extra year to enroll in kindergarten? I worry for your kids, and I’ve got negative feelings toward you. Though starting kindergarten or not may seem like a small decision, the reasons behind the choice say a lot.

If you redshirt for advantage, you’re making it harder for the rest of us who are willing to play by the rules and have our kids start at the typical time. It also makes it seem like if we don’t follow suit and redshirt too, then our kids will be at a disadvantage. And where I live, we already have advantages and privilege up the wazoo, so if it’s unfair to our kids to be with a bunch of older kids whose parents are hoping they can get ahead, then it’s probably exponentially unfair to others.

And I guess that’s what I don’t like about this whole “kindergarten thing”: It’s really hard to separate readiness and fairness. I like to play fair, and I want to teach that to my kids. But, we live in a world where playing fair doesn’t always happen, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it starts in kindergarten.

Decisions, decisions. . .

I’m about 98% certain that my son will start kindergarten the year he turns 5. Even if the preschool teachers tell us to consider waiting, we’ll probably start him anyway. I know my son. I won’t bore you with all of my biased reasons about why he’s amazing, and how smart he is, or how I think he’d end up one of those kids who’s bored and acts out because he’s the oldest in the class. The decision is ultimately up to each family and really, you don’t have to justify it. But, if you’re considering holding your kid back for reasons other than lack of readiness, I really encourage you to consider otherwise. Let’s make this “redshirting for advantage” an urban myth and not a reality.

What do you think??

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  • I love your perspective! This is a hot button issue. I have one child born in May, so he is the youngest in his class. I have another who was born in September, so I could choose whether he would be the oldest or youngest. He is very bright and I chose to push him in slightly early. Both of my kids are doing very well, but it is hard when there are other students who were held back creating such a wide age discrepancy, especially for sports. However, there was an article in the New Yorker that absolutely confirmed to me that I made the right choice. It showed that there are LIFELONG benefits to being the youngest in class. Here’s the link. It’s fascinating. http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/youngest-kid-smartest-kid

    • Thanks, Rebecca. It must be so nice to be on the other side of this and feel good about your decision!! I’m hoping that when I look back, it will feel like one of those silly things I stressed over and that I can feel good about the choice. Thanks for sharing that New Yorker post- I love when I see articles that support younger kids in classrooms. I feel like we hear a lot about holding back and the support for starting a little early can get a bit lost. I was the youngest ALWAYS (I have a December birthday), but there’s also so much talk about boys in particular that it creates more stress for me. I’m thankful the 2nd one has a birthday after the cutoff so I only have to make the decision once!!