The cut-off date for kindergarten in my town is October 1. My son Frankie was born in July. I assumed that meant he’d be going to kindergarten. Now, it seems, that thought process is from another century.
My first clue was a booklet entitled, “Kindergarten Readiness,” which I read outside Frankie’s nursery school classroom before a parent-teacher conference. It included a list of things your child should be doing in various categories. Social and Emotional Development was first and left me feeling pretty good. (Does your child feel comfortable participating in group activities? Check. Is your child able to separate from parents easily? Double check. Does your child take turns? As much as my 8-year-old does.)
Then we got to Fine Motor Skills.
Does your child hold a pencil properly?
How about utensils?
Does your child hold scissors properly?
Scissors? I wasn’t even allowed to touch scissors when I was 4, let alone hold them properly.
My head was reeling by the time I got in to see the teacher.
“So,” she asked, “what are your plans regarding kindergarten?”
“Um, sending him?” I said.
“Well,” she said. “You have a lot of work ahead of you.”
She talked about Frankie’s lack of fine motor skills and the fact that he still hasn’t chosen a hand, which means he’s splitting his skills between the two instead of becoming proficient with one. She also said he’s not particularly interested in getting better; when he’s asked to do something like write letters, he says, “Oh, I’m not good at that. I’m gonna go play Legos.” (Come on, that’s a little funny.)
There’s a lot of information about whether or not to hold your child back before kindergarten. New Jersey Family magazine published a great article on the subject that presented both sides. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) is against the practice, and the New York Times published an interesting article against it as well.
And yet. Parents of summer boys are doing it in droves, and while the national NAEYC comes out solidly “against,” the opposite is often true on the local level. The “Kindergarten Readiness” packet, published by my local school district, concludes with this line: “Discuss your concerns with your teacher and, if in doubt, give your child the gift of time.”
Who wants to be the mother who refuses to give her child a “gift”?
My husband and I were torn over what to do. We read all about the skills he was supposed to have before entering kindergarten; but here are a few other considerations that played into our decision, and that you might want to consider if you find yourself in the same boat:
- Your child’s attitude and learning style. Frankie’s inclination is to do just enough to get by, but no more. So if I kept him in nursery school another year, he’d likely learn less than he would in kindergarten, just because the expectations would be lower. Score 1 for kindergarten.
- The skills he lacks now will likely improve, but the decision to hold back is forever. It’s unlikely that Frankie will be 10 years old and his teachers will still be telling me that he can’t use scissors properly. But once he catches up, I can’t say, “Ok, he’s all caught up now, let’s let him skip a grade!” Score 2 for kindergarten.
- What your child knows about the situation. You’re not going to tell your child, “You’re not good enough for kindergarten, so you’re repeating preK.” But some kids get the hint, while others don’t. For us, Frankie definitely knew that kids his age go to kindergarten. Score 3 for sending him.
- Your options. Is there a good preK program in your area that focuses on the skills your child lacks, and can you afford it? Also, talk to other moms about the kindergarten program in your district: Are the teachers willing to give extra help? Or do they seem to resent kids they consider not up to par? Frankie’s nursery school actually has a class specifically for kids in his situation, so that was Score 1 for holding him back.
- Birth order. When my 8-year-old daughter was Frankie’s age, she lived with two adults who told her everything she did was great. Frankie lives with an 8-year-old who tells him everything he does is wrong. Plus, our closest family friends have kids that are just a bit older than Frankie—leaving him feeling, more often than I’d like, that he’s not quite as good at things as everyone else.
It was this last consideration that really caused us to decide to hold Frankie back. I didn’t want him starting school feeling like he wasn’t up to par.
What is “par” in this situation? According to Frankie’s teacher and the moms I’ve talked to, most kids in our district can read by the time they enter kindergarten; they can count pretty high, their handwriting is pretty good, and they often have taken extra classes. And this is BEFORE kindergarten!
I actually picked Frankie’s nursery school because of its emphasis on learning through play, rather than drilling. I’m not sorry I did—I love his teachers, and I think the philosophy led to a blossoming in his creative thinking. He’ll eventually learn how to read and write well; but will kids who’ve been drilled to death ever learn to think creatively? I know we live in a competitive world, our kids have to be prepared for a global marketplace, etc., etc. But I would say that a spirit of creativity and willingness to try new things—and fail at some—is the prerequisite for the spirit of innovation that has always been credited as America’s source of success. More and more, it seems, kids today are not allowed to try and fail; the end result is all that matters.
Take the “pick a hand” thing. I could tell Frankie, “You need to choose a hand.” I could even pick it for him and enforce a rule about it.
But now imagine that he’s given the space and time to figure out for himself which hand he writes better with. It would take longer, but he’d take away the message that he can figure things out for himself.
I hope another year of PreK will give him that time and space—before the rat race of kindergarten begins.