My son is 5, born Dec. 23, 1979, and he is currently in kindergarten. The entry date cut-off for our school system is Jan. 1, so he is the youngest in his class. We don't know whether to retain him next year.

There seems to be a lot of discussion about "young males" entering school too soon because developmentally they may be slower.

He is a first child so we expect a lot of him, sometimes too much. We have moved three times and this is already his fifth school and fourth home. Nevertheless, he is very well socialized, loving, capable, bright, etc., for his age and has been riding his two-wheeler, without training wheels, since he was 4 1/2.

The first months of school were trying because he was asked to do a lot of coloring. Being a left-handed person, his fine motor skills are a bit slower. He said school was too hard. I spoke with the teacher and we all agreed to back off. Now he loves school but is still somewhat slower in completing the work.

The teachers are concerned with his ability to sit and his penmanship.

My husband and I took him for some diagnostic evaluation, but they wouldn't advise us to retain him or not. Even his teachers agree that academically his skills are fine and say they can't advise us definitely.

People who know our son and us -- one is a PhD in child development -- say there is no reason to retain him.

I know (or feel sure) that he will catch up by third grade, if there is any catching up to do, and if we retain him he may become bored and complacent. A.A. You'll be faced with many A. difficult school decisions in the next 15 years, although they never will seem as ominous as they do now. The problem with accepting statistics too readily is that you're dealing with your own real, live, one-of-a-kind little boy, not a dot on the chart.

He is the youngest in the kindergarten and you need to look at his abilities as impartially as you can. To be ready for first grade, he has to be ready to read, which means he has to be able to decode and memorize shapes so he can tell the difference between b's and d's, most of the time. You can test him with stickers of a house, a car and a boat, each repeated several times, to see if he can pick out all the houses -- and rather quickly. This tells you he can learn words by sight.

He also has to be able to distinguish sounds, so he can hear the whistle in his "whats" and "whiches" and be able to repeat a series of sounds in the order he's heard them. If he can do that, he's about ready to learn to read phonetically.

Sequencing is especially important. He should be able to play with a game that calls for him to do things in order, like a stacking toy, and to track his eyes smoothly, left to right, without skipping around.

His ability to balance is also important -- which he demonstrates on his bike -- and so is his ability to put puzzles together.

It's the social skills that matter even more, however. When a child feels comfortable in school he feels good about himself and this gives him the self-confidence to think about work.

Although your son socializes easily now, school does seem harder for him than it should be.

As you say, if he starts first grade in September and falls a bit behind, he probably would catch up by the third grade, but this would be harder if he had a setback. A family crisis, a bad teacher, an illness, a big move all could make him fail, and that would be hard for him to take. Studies show that failure in school is a child's third greatest fear (right after losing a parent or going blind).

It doesn't seem necessary to take such a risk, just because he beat the school deadline by eight days. Moreover, the competition will be greater than you might expect, since some of the children may be nearly two years older than he is. It's getting more and more acceptable for parents to hold their children back, particularly boys, since they generally develop about six months slower than girls.

Consider the value of waiting a year.

A late entry will give your son time to master the skills that trouble him now. This will help him be a self-confident, interested student, for success makes a child try harder, while failure makes him quit.

Above all, another year in kindergarten will give him the chance to flower.

Kindergarten has become so commonplace that we forget how rich its soil can be. For a sensitive insight into the magical mind of a 5-year-old, read Wally's Stories by Vivian Gussin Paley (Harvard University Press, $14). It's like walking into a small child's soul.

You've got a tough one to call but you probably won't be sorry if you follow a basic rule of the parental thumb: when in doubt, don't.