Illustration for The Washington Post. (Hadley Hooper for The Washignton Post)

Question: This is the time of year when preschools and elementary schools begin their open houses and enrollment for next fall. My son was born in late September, and I don’t know whether he belongs in pre-K or kindergarten.

This really disturbs me because I’ll be making one of the most important education decisions of my child’s life. Because I want to do what is best for him, not just for this year but for his entire time in school, I’ve solicited advice from friends, mothers’ groups and educators. I can’t find a clear answer anywhere.

What is the prevailing theory? What are parents really doing? Please enlighten me and all of your readers.

Answer: Having come from the Muddle-Through School of Motherhood — which every mother attends, whether she admits it or not — this is my advice:

Forget the theories.

Ignore the fads.

Pay no attention to the decisions other mothers make.

Your little boy was created by nature and by nurture, not by some cookie cutter you picked up at Wal-Mart. He is unique and so are his needs.

And if you make the wrong decision, so what? You can pull him out next year or even next semester if you don’t like the place or you find that its philosophy is sketchy or its teachers are inexperienced. You may even be able to skip kindergarten after placing him in pre-K if it was simply too easy for him.

If you’ve placed your son in kindergarten too soon, you can probably have him repeat that year easily. Of course, you’ll worry less if you place him correctly the first time, but this can be hard to do. Children usually change a lot between registration in the winter and the start of school in the fall.

Your son should probably go to kindergarten if you think that by September he will be able to hop, skip, jump and speak clearly, as well as sort at least eight colors and five shapes; use scissors; recognize rhymes; retell a story that someone reads to him; and keep one or two close friends.

There are exceptions, however. A child may not belong in kindergarten if he is socially or physically immature for his age, is much smaller than his classmates and is a boy, because most boys act about six months younger than most girls. When children are overplaced, even though they act younger or are less agile — physically or cognitively — than their classmates, they sometimes have to repeat a later grade no matter how smart they are, which can make them quite unhappy. No child wants to be a tadpole in the pond of life when he could be a really big frog.

If you still don’t know what to do, go for pre-K, where the requirements aren’t so strict. Your son should do fine as long as you think he can be away from you for a few hours by September and can wash his own hands; feed himself; use the potty; follow simple directions; color or play at the sand table for several minutes at a time; sit in a circle to sing a song or hear a story; and play pretty easily with other children.

This may seem like you’ll be holding your son back, but an older boy has an advantage in academics as well as in sports. The mind — and therefore the moral development — takes a big leap around 7 and a much bigger leap around 14 when algebra begins to make sense and consequences begin to be considered. Although your son may complain that he’s older than his classmates, just remind him that he will get his driver’s license before they do. This should calm him down nicely.

To learn more about school readiness, read “How to Choose the Best Preschool for Your Child” by Jenifer Wana (Sourcebooks; $15) and go to www.kindergarten
readiness.com
to find out more about kindergarten requirements. To teach your boy how to act in school, you need to read the witty “Rules for School” by Alec Greven (HarperCollins; $10) to him, and if he gets school jitters, read “The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn (Tanglewood; $18) to him. It will blow his blues away.

8 Send questions about parenting
to advice@margueritekelly.com.

Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past Family Almanac columns. Her next chat is scheduled for Jan. 23.