School cut-off date woes

When we lived in Tucson, the cut-off date for entering kindergarten was September 1st. Even though I knew all along we'd most likely be moving away from Tucson before Miriam started school, it made me a little uneasy. Her birthday is September 4th, putting her juuuust this side of the line. In other words, she'd turn six right around the same time she started kindergarten. Alternatively, we'd have to jump through lots of hoops and make a lot of phone calls (shudder) to get her started a year early, in which case she'd turn five right when starting kindergarten. Either way, it was not an ideal situation.

I breathed a sigh of relief when we came to Ithaca and found out that the cut-off date here is December 10th, putting Miriam solidly in the kindergarten class starting in 2010. I was glad to have the difficult choice of whether or not to start her in school next year (what would have been early in Tucson) quickly and decisively removed from my hands. I had been gearing myself up to fight for her to start "early" in 2010 anyway, so to have the school district here tell me that that's where she belonged was fantastic, and took all of the controversy out of the situation.

Except actually, it doesn't. As I talk to more and more parents around here, I am realizing that the decision of when to start your child in school is far from cut-and-dried. Just as you can petition to have your child start school early (as I was considering doing with Miriam if the deadline had been September 1st), you can also choose to hold your child back.

So now I don't know what to do. It seems like this is one of those topics like childhood immunizations - I do what's best for my kid, you do what's best for yours, and we smile nicely and tiptoe around the other's opinions because we know we don't agree. But just as with immunizations, I believe that the seemingly personal decision to hold your child back in school actually affects everyone's children, and not always for the better.

The fact that so many parents want to hold their child back in school is alarming to me, because in some ways, it punishes those of us who follow the rules (wow, this subject really is similar to immunizations). The reasons for delaying the start of school for a child that I so often hear citedItalic - we want him to be physically as big as his classmates, we want her to have a developmental edge in the classroom, we want him to have a better chance of success in sports because he'll have an extra year of maturation under his belt - only make things worse for those of us who follow the school district's guidelines. And cheating in this way makes the perceived problem (that all the other kids in the grade are bigger, smarter, and better at sports than your child) worse. So then parents have even more evidence to point to when they're considering holding their child back.

Meanwhile, here's me, playing by the rules, putting Miriam in school with what I naively assume to be her peers, when in fact they are kids a year older than her.

It seems to me that if we all just put our kids in school according to the district rules (making exceptions, either way, when necessary), it might not be perfect, but at least it would be fair. What I think would help would be if schools set the cut-off date at December 31st. That way, all the kids in a given grade would have been born in the same calendar year, which seems to take the arbitrariness out of the system and lend a certain sense of cohesiveness to a class. It would also help if all schools, across the nation, had the same cut-off date so that parents don't have to take future moves into consideration when figuring out school schedules.

Of course I realize that there are exceptions, and some children really do need to start kindergarten later (or earlier) than others, and the parent is probably the best judge of that, and blah blah blah, but if the great majority of us don't do things by the rule, then there really isn't a rule, is there?

Two final notes:

1. Yes, I know I need to read Outliers.
2. My own personal experience is unusual in that I was the oldest in my grade through seventh grade (I have an early October birthday so I was legitimately after the cut-off). Then I skipped the eighth grade and ended up being the very youngest in my grade, graduating from high school and going to college when I was 17. Honestly, I preferred being the youngest. So please don't be too hard on me for feeling so strongly about erring on the side of sending kids to school who are slightly young, rather than much older. I lived through it myself and liked being younger better, even though I recognized that I was giving up a few advantages.

Did you have to deal with the finicky school cut-off dates as a child, or are you dealing with it now for one of your own children? What is your honest opinion? Obviously I haven't tried too hard to avoid stepping on anyone's toes in this post, so don't be afraid to tell me how wrong I am.

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Book Review: Alphabet Juice, by Roy Blount Jr.