holding back, pushing forward

My four year old started school this autumn. Yes, four years and eight months old. No, not nursery school or pre-school either: proper school with a six and a half hour day and a ‘curriculum of excellence’ to get through by year’s end. He is a spirited four year old and a competent one and you could even call him precocious. But when he walked into that classroom for the first time a few months ago, he was, in many ways that matter to a mother, still only a small boy.

Leo’s birthday is in late November and the school cut off date in Scotland is the first of March. Had he been born in January or February, I would have had the formal option of holding him back. The local education authority here recognizes the possibility that kids born in these two months might not be emotionally and/or intellectually prepared for the rigors of school before their fifth birthday. The kids born in November and December, on the other hand, are destined to be the youngest in the class. It’s fair enough: somebody has to be.

School-readiness is a constellation of concerns. They are interconnected, as you would expect, but they are not necessarily inter-entailing. Leo was ready for school by academic and social standards – he was beginning to read, he was confident amongst his friends – and the idea of waiting until he was close to six to send him (something we could have petitioned for) seemed nonsensical for exactly those reasons. But he definitely retains vestiges of his toddlerhood. He can’t control a pencil particularly well, for example, and he gets distracted and tired in the face of long spells of concentrated activity. He needs help after he goes to the toilet. He still sucks his thumb. These things might be because of his age. They might be because of his gender. Or they might very well just be because he is Leo. It is impossible to tell.

And after parent’s night I now realize it doesn’t matter anyway. As Leo’s two teachers and I sat down to discuss his progress over the past term, I must have mentioned his age at least three times. Neither of them, it occurred to me on the way home, mentioned it once. To them he wasn’t a four year old lamb in the mix of five year old lions – lions who stand a head taller than he does and form their letters with pretty precision and wipe their own bums. To them he was just another kid in the room, treated individually one would hope, but measured, ultimately, by the same standards as everybody else.

This is as it should be, I know that in theory, but it is an adjustment nonetheless. In the playground, we are used to marshalling reasons to justify our kids’ shortcomings vis-a-vis the other kids: he’s a preemie! She’s a twin! He’s a boy! She’s a third child! In the classroom, these reasons become irrelevant. School, at least where I live, is the first time that children are objectively and systematically gauged against their peers with no real qualifiers. All of a sudden the months between them that meant so much when they were two and three are worth shockingly little. It is an inevitable and natural progression: the significance of age differences and mitigating factors must ebb at some point for the concept of a ‘grade’ to work. But when your kid is on the wrong side of the line, and he is now sitting cheek by jowl with the boy who was held back and is almost a year older than him, it can be alarming. And it makes an emotive argument for delaying school entry in borderline cases, especially when other parents are doing the same thing routinely.

I escaped this anxiety with my first son. He was born in September and school felt like it came at just the right time for him. His birthday was perfectly orchestrated for the school year except, of course, that it wasn’t because the thought never crossed my mind in the consideration of when to conceive him. What is the best time to have a baby in terms of the school cut off? It was one of those parenting questions I didn’t even know to ask.

But by the time I was expecting my twins, two things had happened which gave me a better indication of the answer. The first was a matter of experience: my oldest child was already at school by then and I could see clearly how his age was among the elements that helped him adapt to it so seamlessly. The second was a matter of coincidence. My book club read ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell and I was exposed to the idea that there is a firm correlation between being the oldest in the class and being the most successful, at least in the context of Canadian hockey players. The message there – and it is one that resonates readily with our parenting culture – is that holding your child back is a very good way to push him forward.

And then a funny thing happened. My twins were due March 15 (by chance, I promise!), but being twins I was only meant to carry them to 38 weeks. This put the date of delivery at, you guessed it, March 1. It fell on a Tuesday in 2011 and the hospital offered me the Monday as well, probably out of sympathy. There it was: on one level a decision between having an Amethyst for their birthstone or having an Aquamarine, but on a far more profound one the choice between being the lions or being the lambs. I chose lions. Given what I now knew, it seemed remiss not to.

I made that choice before Leo started school. But the more I watch him manage the routines and expectations of Primary 1 and the more I watch him grow up and into his new identity as a student, the more aware I am of how happily ignorant he – and his peers – are of the distinctions in maturity between them that matter so much to their parents. Or, rather, the distinctions that we thought mattered so much before we actually threw them into the jungle and let them fend for themselves. The younger kids in the year are younger, you can certainly see that, but they are being pushed forward just the same, learning from the older ones and catching up to them too. And the more I watch, the more I find myself worrying not about Leo but about my other two children, the two who will be the oldest in their class when the time comes and how very long those 12 months of waiting might feel to us all.

big bag, little boy: leo on his first day of school

big bag, little boy: leo on his first day of school

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “holding back, pushing forward

  1. Erin Mclennan

    Another great piece Lauren. Yes- a tricky situation for those parents who have to decide. For me, it was not so difficult. My firstborn son (two whammies in terms of school readiness) was absolutely not ready at the age of 4.5 to start school. As he had a February birthday, it was a simple matter of deciding to hold him back and give him a second year of nursery school. He was reading, yes, and has always had an ability to concentrate for long periods of time (to the point that we worried he was a little odd with it) but the issues which made our decisions so easy in the end were threefold. 1. He is an emotional child (cough cough ‘mamas boy’) and we figured, rightly in the end, that another year at nursery fending for himself and forming friendships with his future school mates would strengthen his confidence. 2. Our younger son would only be 2 years behind him in school which is a benefit perhaps best explored in another comment, and 3. It gave us, his family, another year with him at our sides before starting the long course of education and the inevitable consequence of gradual separation as he begins a more private life.
    As a consequence, Christopher was most decidedly ready this August when he started primary 1. What we hoped would happen did happen. He’s more capable, more confident, happy and relaxed. Something changed in those last 6 months between 4.5 and 5. If this was commonality amongst primary 1 children on the cusp, I couldn’t see why parents agonise. But of course, it is not. Kids reach their abilities at all sorts of different rates (harking back to your previous post on milestones) and it’s very hard to anticipate what your child will be like in August when you are asked in February to decide whether or not you will be sending him. That is why it is agonising, I guess. As parents, we have learned by this stage that ‘forward parenting’ is risky and some might say, impossible.
    On a side note, I was the youngest in the class for my whole life having a late December birthday in North America where the cutoff is December 31. I never really new what this meant until much later (where I was a full year behind my friend when it came to the ever so important things like getting my drivers license and being able to buy alcohol), but certainly it was obvious to my parents who did so much to fill the gaps lest I be lost in the shuffle, the last kid in the queue.

  2. Philippa

    I never knew that you had the option to hold children back in Scotland! Here in Western Australia we don’t have that option (as far as I’m aware), and both of my two are almost the youngest in their respective years. H was born a mere 10 days before the cut-off. For us it has been a mixed blessing. A year is such a big gap when they are so little, and at first it bothered me slightly to see my tiny son heaving his oversized bag into a room filled with much bigger kids. He held his own, and the very gentle, play-based curriculum no doubt helped. In his pre-primary year he ended up in a mixed class with kindys, and that worked really well – he was more or less in the middle age-wise and he definitely enjoyed being in the position of ‘helping’ younger children for a change. But now he’s finishing year 3 he’s had such a great year academically that I’m grateful he’s where he is. For B it was rather different – she was desperate to get to school and take part in everything that her brother was doing, and despite being physically little is far more socially assertive than I ever was at that age. The path pre-trodden by a sibling is probably easier, too. It did occur to me though that in the Scottish system it must be common to have children who are 14 months apart in the same classroom all the way through – those with Jan/Feb birthdays of parents who have chosen to hold back and those who haven’t. I wonder if that has much practical effect?

  3. thanks for sharing your stories, ladies, always a pleasure to read! the bottom line seems to be that it is an individual and often times difficult decision to hold back or not. But, in the end, most kids seem to do just fine with whatever route their parents have chosen for them and they catch up either in the year they are waiting for school or in the classroom itself!

  4. You have both ends of the spectrum with your kiddos! It’ll be fun to compare and contrast their experiences. And I hope Leo finished out the year successfully and is just LOVING primary school!

  5. I was one of the youngest kids when I went to school and I never thought a thing of it until it was time to get my driver’s license. As a teacher, I was trained to differentiate pretty much everything based on the needs of individual students. I taught very young kids and I could usually tell with size and maturity if the kids were the lions or the lambs. But, then again, that was only part of the story. Their upbringing at home had a whole lot to do with how they behaved and learned in class and that was the bottom line I noticed.

    • It’s funny: I was one of the very youngest in my class as well (many of my friends were almost a full year older), a fact that didn’t even occur to me when I was writing this piece. Which kind of proves the point! The teacher’s perspective is very interesting to me.

  6. H is a Dec bday in a Dec 31 cut-off regime, and I think about this a lot. Re your FB comment, I think you turned out ok. 🙂 I was older (March in a Dec 1 cut-off program — I think it’s weird that they are all so different), and I thought it was for the best. I went to a meh public school and probably would have been super bored. When I went away to Dartmouth I noticed that the kids who had skipped grades (as I was asked to do but my parents declined) definitely had a harder time with it since they were less ready to be away from home. I like the UK/Aus “gap” year concept, esp. for younger kids. Really appreciated this post and your perspective, as always. Hope we get to meet IRL some day.

  7. Pingback: That Kind Of Mother | Welcome to the Motherhood

  8. Pingback: That Kind Of Mother | Welcome to the Motherhood

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