WE'RE IN MY SISTER Kristin's living room watching my nephews Peter and Matthew pretend to be bugs. Well, we're not supposed to know they're bugs. We're supposed to be guessing what they are pretending to be. But they've done these insect imitations dozens of times already, so really the guessing part is not the point.
"A fly!" I say to Matthew, who is so happy that I guessed correctly that he tumbles on top of his brother (a spider), and the two of them vie to see who is going to gobble the other up.
Everybody laughs. We love this floor show. We wonder what we did for entertainment before these boys came along. We marvel, in the way you do, at how fast they're growing, how Peter's already in kindergarten and Matthew will start next year.
My sister Claire, the boys' mother, yelps. "The K-word," she says. "Oh, let's not even go there."
"Kindergarten," she says. "Sore subject." James, her husband, shoots her a glance. "We're not sure if Matthew is going to start kindergarten next year," she says. The rest of us -- my parents, my husband, my brother, his wife, my other sister -- are confused. Matthew is 41/2. Why wouldn't he be ready for school by September?
"Oh, it's not about being ready," she says. "I mean, he can do Peter's homework, for heaven's sakes. He's more than ready -- "
"He's going," James interrupts. "You turn 5, you go to kindergarten. End of story."
"It's not that simple anymore," Claire says.
It's not? Call us stupid, but the rest of us have no idea what is going on. He's ready for kindergarten and he might be held back?
Kristin (whose daughter, Katie, is 7) translates for us. She says some of her friends have struggled with the K-word, too. She says nowadays some parents are delaying their kids' entry into kindergarten until well after their fifth birthdays to give them an "age advantage."
"They'll be a little smarter, a little taller, a little stronger than the other kids," Claire says. "I'm not saying I agree with it, but . . . " In fact, she says, she doesn't.
"Age advantage?" says Alex, my husband, who, outside of my parents, is the most age-advantaged in the room.
Claire nods, then shrugs, as if feeling defeated by an issue she would prefer to avoid. She says she's heard some parents just come out and say it: I'm going to hold my son back so that when he gets to high school, he'll have a better chance of making the varsity football team.
"Eww," my mother says.
"There's something wrong with that," my father says.
We sit in silence, watching Peter be a worm and Matthew be a cricket. I'm thinking, Eww. It's a gut reaction. A sense that, wait a second, is someone cheating here? Doesn't this amount to stacking the deck? And anyway, what kind of world are we sending our children out into? A place where the fit survive, but the advantaged excel. So stock up on your privileges, kids. Stock up now!
"Well, I don't think my parents thought too much about high school sports when I was starting kindergarten," Alex says.
"I don't think my parents thought too much about high school sports when I was in high school," I say.
"I went to all your basketball games," my mother protests.
"We are getting off the subject here!" Claire interjects. "I don't think you guys understand what it's like out there today."
"It's a get-your-kid-into-Harvard mentality," Kristin says. She says a few kids in Katie's second-grade class are a full year older than Katie, and are indeed ahead academically, as well as physically and emotionally. For Halloween, one of Katie's older classmates dressed up as Ricky Martin. Katie, who went as a princess, had no idea who Ricky Martin was.
"Ricky who?" says my father, acting precisely his age.
"I remember when kids were held back so they could have a better chance to keep up," Alex says. "And now they're being held back so they have a better chance to get ahead?"
"Well, you do have to wonder," Claire says. "Is your kid going to be at a disadvantage because you didn't hold him back?"
"Oh, you don't have to wonder about the kid," says my mother, who always cuts to the chase. She says it's the parents who could benefit from some scrutiny. "What are they living out through these children?"
"Okay, what am I?" Matthew says, assuming a new curled-up pose on the carpet. We've never seen this one before.
A snail, we guess. Nope. An inchworm? Nope. Okay, we give up.
"A sleeping boy!" he says, rolling over with delight.
Peter howls. This has got to be the funniest joke going. He flops on the floor, assuming the new pose himself, adding a loud snore into the act. "A sleeping boy!" he shouts. "Because the grown-ups are being so boring."
Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.