To red shirt or not to red shirt — one mother’s decision process

August 29

(Zsofia McMullin)

One more year. I have one more year.

Until about six months ago we lived in Maine where the birthday cutoff is October 15. My son was born on December 31, so I was watching other parents around me agonize over the kindergarten decision with a smug look on my face. And then we moved to Connecticut. The cutoff date here is January 1 and my smugness was suddenly all gone.

Is he ready for this? Am I ready for this? We spent the summer talking and thinking about little else. My son was evaluated by the school, I talked to friends and relatives, everyone who was willing to listen and give advice. But of course in the end, the decision was up to us.

Is it just me, or is this decision much bigger than any others I’ve had to make as a parent? The earlier ones seemed to have sort of an expiration date, even if the stakes were high. Natural birth over drugs and C-section, breast or bottle, staying at home or going to work—these all really applied or had their biggest influence for a few years at the most. I never worried too much about these decisions, because I felt like the effects would all even out in the long run. Will a child live life at a great disadvantage because I had a shot of something to take the edge off the pain of childbirth or because he wasn’t breastfed? Probably not. But the same does not feel true for school. Lives do go astray because of the wrong kid, in the wrong school, with the wrong teacher, at the wrong time. You don’t breastfeed for 12 years, but you do go to school for at least that long and hopefully longer.

I knew that there is plenty of research to support whatever decision I ended up making. To red-shirt or not is a popular topic on many parenting sites with convincing arguments from both sides. I could see my son benefiting from being the oldest in his class, as well as from having to work harder as the youngest to keep up with the older kids. I’ve been reading about all of this until I could read no more and still I kept thinking that all of this research has the advantage of being able to look back at large groups of kids and draw conclusions.

I didn’t have that luxury. I had to look forward for this one specific little boy and try to predict what will serve him best, based on what I know about him. And I had to make the decision with a cold, rational head. I had to forget about his baby-soft skin, his chubby little knees, or the way his head gets sweaty when he naps. Somehow I had to stop thinking of him as “my baby” and separate his readiness from mine. Because I was—I am—clearly not ready.

I thought we had all this time together—lazy afternoons when I pick him up early from preschool, “stay home” days when we linger in bed, read, and make pancakes for breakfast with lots of cinnamon and vanilla. I thought we had time for spur-of-the-moment trips in the middle of the week, for days when we just don’t have to face the world at all if we don’t want to.

Now those days seemed to be coming to an end and as I felt my panic level rise, I kept reminding myself that so much of parenting is waiting for the next milestone and trying to keep up with the changes each day brings. There is so much anticipation for new skills to emerge—standing up, first steps, first words—and so much nostalgia over the passage of time and wishing back whatever came before.

Are we ever ready for the next milestone? Are we ever not taken by surprise when they happen? One day they can’t walk—and then the next day they stand up and run. Do we remember that last day of crawling or are we just swept up in the excitement of walking? Are we ever at a point where we really just want our kids to get through everything that is to come for them? Is it possible to not look back with longing while celebrating their huge strides?

It is the end of summer and we have decided not to send him to kindergarten this year. I know that this is just a temporary relief; that this particular milestone is definitely coming, whether I am ready or not. I have a year to get used to it and maybe by then it won’t take me by surprise.

And I have a year to remind myself that in the end this is all about Sam. He will embark on a great adventure. I am excited for him. So I need to pack his bag and make sure he has what he needs.

He will be ready and I have to let him go.

Zsofia McMullin blogs at Zsofi Writes.

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