Lisa Larney started researching college when her daughter was 3. She wanted to know everything she could about the long-term impacts of delaying kindergarten enrollment for her daughter, born just a week before her school district's enrollment cutoff date.
Would she benefit from going to college a year later? What if she's too tall for her grade? Would she perform better academically if held back?
After two years of studying her daughter's social interactions and researching her options, Larney decided to "redshirt" her, the term used for keeping children in prekindergarten instead of enrolling them when they're first eligible at age 5.
Redshirting was originally popularized in college sports: Coaches would keep athletes out of competition for a year to develop their skills and extend eligibility. When it comes to kindergarten readiness, the hotly debated practice is most common among parents of kids with summer birthdays — locally, Sept. 1 is typically the cutoff date — because it decides the difference between being the youngest in their class or the oldest, with all the advantages that come with age.
Some parents who redshirt say their child isn't ready for a classroom setting. Others admit they want to give their kid a leg up by enrolling them in kindergarten at age 6, instead. And even others do it in an attempt to mitigate existing disadvantages — whether perceived or very real. The thinking is they'll always be a year ahead academically, physically, socially.
Larney, 44, of Bala Cynwyd, in the end waited to enroll her daughter, and made sure she was challenged academically in her second year of preschool to avoid boredom. The decision, ultimately, was because Larney thought her daughter could use time to mature, and wanted to protect her sensitive child from the impending "girl drama." Larney said her now 9-year-old, who is headed to third grade, still struggles from time to time with self-confidence, but in that extra year, she learned to better stand up for herself.
"I knew that this would be the best thing for her," Larney said, "and I 100 percent do not regret it, and I can't imagine I ever will."
A handful of studies show that while children who are redshirted experience academic and social advantages while in kindergarten, that can dissipate by middle school. Some researchers argue redshirting can harm children's development over the years if they aren't challenged enough, and others suggest it's actually the youngest kids who perform better academically over time.
But the redshirt-or-not stress remains, particularly among highly educated parents in high-income areas where the conversation has become a point of contention on playgrounds and in preschools. Parents say they've lost sleep over the decision, worried that the wrong choice could irreparably damage their child's development. Even after the fact, parents say they still think about it years later, wondering what social or academic milestone could have gone differently.
"It's a very tricky and conflicting decision," said Jen Cohen, 41, a mother of two from Wynnewood who enrolled both of her summer-birthday boys, now 13 and 6, in kindergarten when they were first eligible. "As more and more parents do it, the pressure to do it becomes kind of bigger."
Only about 6 percent of children are redshirted, a number that's been relatively consistent for the last 15 years or so, according to Diane Schanzenbach, an economist who coauthored a 2017 study on redshirting.
But among boys and those with educated parents, the rate is higher. College graduates are almost twice as likely as high school graduates to redshirt their sons. Schanzenbach's study showed nearly one in five boys with summer birthdays and college-educated parents were redshirted in 2010. (One reason may be that it's mostly higher-income families who can afford to keep their children in preschool an extra year.)
Dominic Gullo, a professor of early childhood education at Drexel University who studies the long-range effectiveness of prekindergarten and kindergarten programs, said that for some parents, it isn't an academic "readiness" issue, but rather they are trying to right personality traits they believe are obstacles to success.
"It's an 'I want my child to be older, smarter, more ahead of everybody else,' and that's why you see it in that particular demographic," said Gullo, who added that in most cases, "if they are 5 by the cutoff date, then your child is ready to enter kindergarten."
Gullo said the practice of redshirting has been going on since at least the 1980s as the emphasis on early childhood education increased in public discourse. But things amplified after Malcolm Gladwell seemed to endorse the idea in his 2008 bestseller, Outliers, in which the first chapter is about the relative advantage of being slightly older in competitive situations.
"There's so much pressure to redshirt," said Schanzenbach, Northwestern's Margaret Walker Alexander Professor of Human Development and Social Policy. "The parents feel like everybody is doing it. You kind of feel like, 'Am I doing the right thing for my kid by not redshirting them?' "
Eileen Christy felt so much pressure that she thought about kindergarten enrollment when she was due to give birth in late August. She hoped her daughter would be born late, so she'd be one of the oldest kids in her class once kindergarten came around.
Her daughter ended up being born on time. But Christy knows what it feels like to always be the youngest kid in the class, having had a close-to-cutoff birthday. So she and her husband have already decided they will keep their daughter, who turned 4 this month, out of kindergarten until she's 6.
"We always knew we wanted to put her at an advantage rather than a disadvantage," said Christy, a 34-year-old mother of two who lives in the Far Northeast.
But the most recent research isn't altogether consistent. Schanzenbach said her study shows the academic advantages for children who had an extra year to prepare for kindergarten often dissipate by middle school.
However, a separate 2017 paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded children who are older compared with others in their grade have higher test scores even into high school. That study, though, didn't measure the impacts of redshirting, but rather compared older children born in August to those born in September. The authors of that report have warned that its results are not an endorsement of redshirting.
Experts roundly say the practice can be successfully used in unique circumstances, like for a child who has experienced trauma or has been adopted and is adjusting to a new culture. But the risk of redshirting is that a child who is held back but doesn't need it may become bored and act out.
Gullo said children who are redshirted tend to have a higher prevalence of behavioral issues over time and drop out of high school at a higher rate.
Mary Aiken, a 49-year-old mother of four from Wynnewood, has worried that holding back her twin sons in kindergarten would lead to academic boredom. But Aiken, who is black, said she always knew if she had boys born in the summer, she'd keep them back a year because she feels "the pressure is on them" to be nicer, smarter, more hardworking.
"They're already looked upon as immature, and then I throw in the African American portion, and we live in a predominantly white suburb," she said. "I wanted to make sure they had every possible positive on their side."
The twins, born in July, are now going into second grade, and Aiken, who's a teacher herself, doesn't regret the choice.
It's impossible to predict how this decision might affect your child's long-term development, but studies show there are risks associated with redshirting. At the same time, being the youngest student in the class could come with its own benefits.
If a child notices all of his or her friends are moving on to kindergarten, the child's self-confidence could suffer, said Marcy Safyer, the director of the Center for Children and Families at the Chicago-based Erikson Institute. She said this feeling can make kids anxious and affect their ability to cope.
"If you feel like you're not as worthwhile as other children or you feel that somebody feels like you're not smart or you can't cut it," she said, "it can be very inhibiting."
Komalatha Vadlamuru, a 39-year-old mother of two from Ardmore, considered redshirting her son, who just turned 5. But she's sending him to kindergarten this fall after worrying about how he might feel about the decision down the road.
"When he's in high school, he might say, 'Well, I wasn't mature enough, so you held me back?' " she said, adding: "Someone has to be the youngest in the class, right?"
Some studies show children who are relatively younger in early childhood education may struggle in kindergarten keeping up academically with peers who are a year older, but they may actually fare better academically by the time they reach high school because they came of age in an environment with older kids. Similar to the effects of having an older sibling, they spent so much time trying to match their peers that they end up performing better. (Schanzenbach said there's even less reason to redshirt a child with an older sibling.)
"We find really strong empirical evidence that being with kids that are aspirational or within reach — so if you pay more attention you can maybe catch up with them — is really good for you," Schanzenbach said. "Having older kids in your classroom, they sort of serve as role models and there's competition in a healthy way."
Caroline Watts, director of School and Community Engagement at Penn's Graduate School of Education, said parents should consider that every 4-year-old isn't the same. They all develop physically, cognitively, and emotionally, but "those domains don't necessarily mature in symphony."
Safyer said any parents who feel their child isn't socially or emotionally ready for kindergarten may want to have the child evaluated to ensure there isn't another, underlying issue.
"You have to look at your individual child and say '… Do they seem ready to take on the demands, challenges, and opportunities of going into kindergarten?' " Watts said.
Jenn Shaw, 44, a former teacher, just didn't think her daughter was ready to sit at a desk all day. And nearly six years later, the Haverford mother tells other parents considering redshirting that it was one of the best choices she ever made for her now-11-year-old daughter, who she said is socially happy and a strong learner.