It’s the end of the school year, and even for preschoolers, that means special events, performances, and more parental involvement. Recently, I found myself at my son’s school, helping to prepare for a special reading-focused day of fun, games, and—of course—books. I was teamed with a few other moms who’d agreed to come in and help prepare for reading day. One other woman’s boy was almost the same age as Marcus, and we two found ourselves paired up, cutting hundreds of strips of crepe paper to the same length. (Doorway and window streamers, of course.)
There we labored over a stubby preschool-height table, trimming strip after strip after strip, and searching for something to chat about. We ended up talking about next year. Both our boys will return to this school for another year of preschool, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise. And after that? This kind lady informed me that she and her husband had already pretty much decided that their child would go into a pre-kindergarten class instead of progressing to kindergarten.
Why? I asked. Well, she explained, they’d done that with their daughter, and she was in kindergarten now and was doing very well. People had thought they were crazy, the teachers had not recommended holding the girl back, she was well within the age limits required for kindergarten admission, they probably could have sent her, but kids learn so much so soon these days… They wanted their kids to have the advantage. “But it’s not for sports or anything like that!” she smiled. I commented that I would wait until Marcus was closer to the mark before we made that call, and internally, I was shaking my head vigorously and deciding without hesitation that we would not take such a step unless strongly encouraged to do so by my son’s teachers—and maybe not even then.
What are we doing to our kids? I think of children a century ago, how it wasn’t unusual for many kids to stop attending school after 8th grade if not sooner. I believe it was common for many of the boys to be immediately apprenticed with their future employer. Probably plenty of them were being “men” by fairly young ages. I’d venture to guess that more than a few were breadwinners, husbands, and fathers well before age 20, willingly and by choice. And the girls? I’d guess that their paths were similarly responsible if single—working in homes, businesses, schools, factories—and if married, they were likely rearing their own families.
Nowadays, we delay the maturation of our children, supposedly for their benefit. Retaining a child in school back may be a wise move for some parents, when most people who know the child agree that this is for the best. But what about holding a kid back just because he doesn’t like to sit still? What about holding him back to ensure he’s not the smallest or youngest kid in his class? And what of those parents who do hold back children for sport-competition reasons? We know they’re out there. The end result is a lot of older, bigger kids in schools, advancing ages in graduates (high school and college), and increasingly late starts in real life.
When is a kid no longer a kid? Several years of trade school, college, maybe grad school, travel and volunteer opportunities, etc. allow a kid to remain fundamentally a kid for far too many years. When the president (in name, at least) starts suggesting work opportunities for young adults—and I believe he labeled young adults as up to age 24—that makes me feel a bit edgy. 24 is a young adult? I thought young adults were pre-teens and young teenagers. That’s what the literary market calls them, and the movie industry…
I realize that people live longer now. I am fully aware that the job market is quite different from what it was in the industrial age. I know that some fields of study require many years of education. All of that is inarguable, and none of it is inherently bad. But. Does that mean we should choose to restrain our children so they are better fit to handle the coming responsibilities? It seems to me that our reduced expectations are being met—as they always are. Lower the bar and watch the standards fall. Raise the age of adulthood, and watch the kids cling to childhood. The fact that most middle- and upper-class children in America are getting everything they want, too soon and with very little effort, isn’t helping encourage adulthood, either.
So, that’s what I’ve been pondering since I talked to that other mom. I was the 3rd youngest kid in my class, as far as I know. Did that ruin my life? Cause me to fall behind? Make me feel inferior? No. I had a crappy year of kindergarten, and that was pretty much it. We all dealt with the challenges of each grade level, and for the most part we met them. As far as the kids who didn’t meet them, guess what: they likely wouldn’t have met them even if they’d been delayed for a year, or two for that matter. The problem wasn’t their ability, nor their maturity—it rarely is. And yes, I speak from experience: 6 years spent teaching helped clarify the real reasons that kids fail a grade.
Maybe I’m being unreasonable. Yet—since most teens spend half of their exhalant breath declaring how grown-up they are, and the vast majority of them engage in adult activities, perhaps we should stop encouraging them to remain children. And we can begin by allowing our little ones to move toward the coming educational challenges on schedule. Yes, there are exceptions; there have always been, and that is as it should be. But exceptions are called such because they are exceptions from the rule. Let’s keep it that way.