Red Shirt BoyThese days it seems like all you need to do to sell a book, advance a theory, or get parents talking is to mention the words: competitive advantage.  Parents of young children today want their kids to have every opportunity to succeed.  From exposing them to Mandarin in the womb, Mozart in their cribs and flashcards in the bath, parents are willing to do anything to give their children a leg up on their classmates.  Except maybe letting them learn to strive.

That’s the idea behind Youngest Kid, Smartest Kid? which makes the argument against the controversial practice of academic redshirting.  The article acknowledges the immediate boost older, more mature children experience in kindergarten.  There are dozens of studies concluding that “older kindergarten students perform better on tests, receive better teacher evaluations, and do better socially.”  But new studies are challenging how long those results last, suggesting that by eighth grade the playing field is leveled among the age disparity and by college — when competitive edge really matters — “younger students repeatedly outperform older ones in any given year.”  This is where redshirting backfires.

Why would that be the case? It all comes back to that relative difference: if you are always bigger and smarter, you may be more likely to get bored, and to think that everything—learning included—should come easily. You don’t have to strive and overcome obstacles in the form of older, more developed kids. If, on the other hand, you’re on the younger end of the spectrum, you are constantly forced to reach for your limits. And unlike in sports, where physical size often plays an undeniable, difficult-to-circumvent role in your eventual success, in school a physical disadvantage can turn into an academic advantage: children may learn to compete where they can succeed, where their persistence and attention can accomplish what their physical size may not.

Redshirting won’t be an option for either of my kids, but I had no idea their February birthdays would put them among the youngest in their classes until we enrolled in preschool.  Last year in my son’s NYC preschool class, there was only one child younger than him.  In fact, one boy turned five years old just two weeks earlier while my son was still three.  I was worried then, but maybe now I can see it as a good thing.

While there is certainly an absolute benefit to being bigger and stronger, learning to deal with and overcome obstacles also has a long-lasting effect. It’s a quality the psychologist Angela Duckworth calls “grit,” and Carol Dweck dubs the “incremental mindset”: the knowledge that perseverance, dedication, and motivation can help you where an absolute advantage may not immediately come to the rescue. If you’ve always been praised as the best and brightest, chances are that that self-perception will eventually backfire; if you’ve had to earn your distinctions, they’re more likely to last.

If parents are redshirting for the individual benefit of their child, these studies should mean nothing.  But for those who consider redshirting for the sheer sport of what psychologist Betsy Sparrow calls “gaming the system” — it might be time to think again.

(photo: spinadelic)