When the Harvard sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman was expecting her first child, one thing worried her: her due date, January 3rd. It was uncomfortably close to January 1st, an often-used age cutoff for enrollment in academics and sports. “I was determined to keep him in until after January 1st,” she said. And if the baby came early? “I actively thought about redshirting,” she said. Given the choice, she wanted him to be the oldest kid in his class, not the youngest.
Redshirting is the practice of holding a child back for an extra year before the start of kindergarten, named for the red jersey worn in intra-team scrimmages by college athletes kept out of competition for a year. It is increasingly prevalent among parents of would-be kindergartners. In 1968, four per cent of kindergarten students were six years old; by 1995, the number of redshirted first- and second-graders had grown to nine per cent. In 2008, it had risen to seventeen per cent. The original logic of the yearlong delay is rooted in athletics: athletes who are bigger and stronger tend to perform better, so why not bench the younger, smaller ones for a year? The logic was popularized in “Freakonomics,” in which the authors, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, pointed out that élite soccer players were much more likely to have birthdays in the earliest months of the year–that is, they would have been the oldest in any group of students that used a January 1st cutoff for enrollment.
On the surface, redshirting seems to make sense in the academic realm, too. The capabilities of a child’s brain increase at a rapid pace; the difference between five-year-olds and six-year-olds is far greater than between twenty-five-year-olds and twenty-six-year-olds. An extra year can allow a child to excel relative to the younger students in the class. “Especially for boys, there is thought to be a relative-age effect that persists across sports and over time,” said Friedman. “Early investment of time and skill developments appears to have a more lasting impact.” Older students and athletes are often found in leadership positions–and who can doubt the popularity of the star quarterback relative to the gym-class weakling?