Helicopter parenting goes to grade school

July 25, 2008, 4:39 PM UTC

When I saw a headline about this study, “The Lengthening of Childhood,” on the front page of the New York Suna few days ago, my Gen Y antennae immediately went up. As we’ve discussed here before, some researchers argue that one of the main reasons we Yers are who we are is our own (Boomer parent-enabled) elongated adolescence. But instead of the more general argument about young people’s dependence on their parents, this National Bureau of Economic Research working paper focused specifically on kindergartners and the potentially negative effects of “red-shirting” — essentially, the increasingly popular practice of starting those with fall and winter birthdays a year later so that they’ll be at the older end of their class, instead of among the youngest. And since some of us are young enough to have been affected by this trend, and others may soon have children of their own and be facing this decision themselves, it seemed worth discussing — especially because of the interesting role our parents play.

Red-shirting isn’t new, and it’s been on the rise. Supported by past research as a means to better-performing and more well-adjusted students, the strategy started to catch on with parents, and many school districts began to move their kindergarten eligibility cutoff dates up as well, so that those kids with birthdays later in the year would become the elder statesmen of their primary schools, instead of the runts, for lack of a better word.

But according to the paper (written by Harvard researchers): “There is little evidence that being older than your classmates has any long-term, positive effect on adult outcomes such as IQ, earnings, or educational attainment. By contrast, there is substantial evidence that entering school later reduces educational attainment (by increasing high-school dropout rates) and depresses lifetime earnings (by delaying entry into the labor market).”

Of course, there are all sorts of circumstances here, and some children may very well need the extra time, but the most striking part of all this to me wasn’t whether or not red-shirting ought to be standard operating procedure, but the apparently significant influence of, as the Sun politely calls them, “ambitious parents.”

“Upper-income, white, highly-educated parents red-shirt their children at the highest rate,” the paper says. And later: “Parents believe that older children out-compete their younger peers in the classroom, on the athletic field, and in college admissions. Thus, eager to give their children an edge, parents are willing to hold back their child one year in order to shift them up the pecking order.”

Hello, helicopter parenting! While the researchers are careful not to blame parents, it’s clear that in some cases, these admittedly well-intentioned moms and dads end up serving their egos far more than their children’s actual interests. And while in the short term, they’re doing it to have a happy child and be happy themselves — as George Davison, headmaster of Grace Church School in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, puts it in the Sun, “People in the world who feel good about themselves are more effective adults, and more effective adults have higher income.” — even all those good feelings could be to their detriment. Because while experts agree that kindergarten’s harder than it’s traditionally been, and more is expected of the kids than ever, that isn’t an excuse to gloss over the other crucial lessons that childhood is supposed to teach.

Learning, earning, growth, development — those are better rewards than empty praise. A child who’s always protected from making mistakes and experiencing failure is going to be at a major disadvantage in the “real” world. Because let’s be honest, that’s what build character and keeps us from being the coddled adults everyone says we are. And without it, you have the kind of young person who’s just sure he’s the answer to whatever the question is — you know, the one all those managers and older people are always complaining about in our comments? It’s an attitude that, frankly, often also leads to less true achievement, not more; it’s hard to strive when you haven’t ever really had to, or to fight to earn something that you believe you already deserve.

Please don’t mistake this for some kind of anti-Gen Y rant. If anything, it’s in defense of Yers: It frustrates me when we take the rap for the consequences of decisions out of our control — i.e. when we’re vilified for simply being the people our parents raised us to be. (Which isn’t to excuse bad behavior, but rather to recognize what one might call “shared culpability.”)

And I am definitely not saying that there aren’t many situations where red-shirting is right and appropriate, depending on the individual child. But it seems to me there are also many situations where our moms and dads just need to suck it up and send us off into the big, bad world. If the six-year-olds I know are any indication, it’s the parents who are afraid, not the kids. (Seriously. Have you listened to a nursery rhyme lately? Anyone who can listen to “Rock-a-bye Baby” and still go to sleep has got to be pretty brave.) So the sooner Mom and Dad face those fears, I think, the better off they’ll be.

Now, what do you think? I’m out on a bit of a limb here, I know, but are you out here with me? Or are you all for starting school when the spirit moves you? Anyone have personal experience in this area? (For the record, only one of my sibs has an early birthday, putting him on the older end of his class. He was also by far the coolest of all of us at school. But I think that had more to do with his love of cars and clothes than any temporal advantage. Or maybe that was the temporal advantage. Who knows? But regardless, the rest of us seemed to have turned out all right…)