How does a four year old measure success?

One of the happiest accidents of our move to Massachusetts was discovering how good the public school system is where we live. Our little village boasts one of the top elementary schools in the state, and we share a high school with neighboring Concord that is truly at the top of the pack. And this in a state with among the best education systems in the country. 

We didn't really know that when we moved here. We just liked that our house had a barn. So... well done, us, eh?

In England, the Critter went to an all-girls private school. They started school a year early (kindergarten at 4, Year 1 at 5, etc.). So that when we moved here, not long after she turned 6, we went through a whole gut-wrenching dialogue with our local school about what grade she really should be in. 

"Never mind that she's already learned everything in 1st grade. It's far more important at this age that she develop the necessary social skills, which will be ever so much easier with peers of her own age group." 

This bugged me. I was reluctant, to say the least. But I looked at my quiet, shy little girl, who had always been on the serious and thoughtful side, and allowed myself to be swayed. And so she entered first grade at our local school.

Academically it was, without a doubt, 80% a wasted year. But this is first grade. And the 'academic program' of first grade still includes copious amoounts of construction paper and glue.  In hindsight, I do wish I had stuck to my guns on the topic, but there's no doubt that the Critter is doing well, is well adjusted and fits in with her peers. And I can't be anything but happy with that in the end. 

Now fast forward a few years: 

The Boy is now 4, and as of last fall, in the school's pre-kindergarten program. A couple of months into it, we had the chance to sit down with his teachers. 

You should understand that the Boy is in many ways like his older sister. They're both pretty low-maintenance kids (although the Critter's maintenance level is on the up-tick as she approaches double-digit age girlness).  They're both, thankfully, generally thoughtful and considerate children, and fairly aware and responsive of how the kids around them might be feeling. They like reading and drawing, and I've never once had to keep them from chasing a neighborhood pet with a cricket bat or a can of spray opaint. 

That being said, they're also fundamentally different in a few ways. Where the Critter was shy, serious and intensely thoughtful, preferring to observe before jumping into anything new (including friendships), the Boy is the virtual mayor of Kindergarten. He's the kid all the others want to play with, sweet and cooperative and ready to laugh. He's all boy-hood resilience. He's rarely upset or complains - the Boy had a raging ear infection for two weeks in both ears before he mentioned that his ear was mildly incoveniencing him. He is the most unflappable of four year olds you'd care to meet. 

So when we sat down with his teachers for our first pre-kindergarten discussion, I more or less expected something along the lines of, "Hasn't poked other children with sticks: A+." And that's certainly how the conversation started. They led off with all compliments and remarks about what a pleasure the Boy is to have in class, and how well he interacts with others. Super-helpful, and acts as a calming influence on some of the more "rough-housing" kids, defusing arguments by sharing and helping. He listens attentively, and follows instructions. There was even some low-key gushing about his "spatial capabilty" and his graduate-level mastery of Duplo blocks that makes him a record-smashing champion of block-building time.


I could sense a "but..." lurking in there someplace. 

The two teachers looked at each other a quiet look, dripping with unspoken meaning.

"Is there something else?" I asked.

"Well, yes.. now that you brought it up. You see... I mean, that is to say..."

"It's ok. You can say it. We're ready."


That's exactly how it came out. All rushed and crowded together in an urgent tone of voice, and with a sort of "insert audience <gasp> here" kind of pregnancy. 

Having spoken these horrible words, one teacher wrung her hands, looking as if she was terribly sorry that she had to mention 'The Unpleasantness' at all, but you know how it is. The other teacher leaned back in a sort of grim satisfaction that the bad news was out in the open at last.  

"Yes. We haven't really taught him that one." I said, calmly.  (I did spend two weeks trying to teach him to answer every question with the phrase "Cool, baby," with some limited success. You know. The important stuff.)

Because you see, here is what you learn when you put a second little 'child' peg into your plastic Milton Bradley's Game of Life automobile: You were insane with your first child. 

Yes, you.

You who made your child learn the alphabet song before they were two. You who thought multiplication flash-cards and weaning went together. You who taught your toddler helpful mnemonics for memorizing the sequence of colors in a rainbow, the dates every state was admitted to the union, and Plank's constant. You who clocked the time of every development and fact mastered like an olympic judge was standing outside the nursery door with a clipboard, an Omega stopwatch and a faintly disappointed shake of their head. Because you were sure that the lack of such vital facts would keep her out of kindergarten, and ruin her chance of ever getting into Harvard. 

With the second kid, sanity begins to kick in, and things get a little more relaxed. You realize that memorization of the entire periodic table can wait a couple of years, at least. And that your toddler will probably be potty trained before he's old enough to ask someone out for Senior prom, and if not - well, either way: you win, now don't you?  

Ok, it's possible that we dialed back on the academic exercises a little much with the second kid.  But I wasn't prepared for the next part of that teacher conversation. It went something like "blah, blah, blah. Have you considered delaying his progression into kindergarten?" 

Woah there, Mr. Kotter. Back up for a second. I need to hear that again. 

Three years ago when we were discussing the Critter, it was stressed to me that at this young an age, the social skills and ability to handle one's self with one's peers and teachers was paramount. That academic stuff would come, no problem. In fact, the European school that started her so early really wasted everyone's time with all that academic mumbo-jumbo before she turned 6. And now we get to The Boy - who is more socially tuned and adept than many pre-teens I've met, and we're saying that we had it all backwards before? Ok, having met many pre-teens, maybe that's a low standard to set. But a minute prior in our conversation, they were ready to crown him "Master Congeniality" of the class.  What the hell? 

Don't get me wrong - I have a tremendous amount of respect for his teachers, and the school system in general. They're clearly doing something right to have such a record of success.  Also: if there is some indication of a learning challenge or some other issue that needs attention, of course I want to know about it. If there is, for example, early signs of dyslexia - the sooner we know, the better we can help address it. However, when asked, none of that was mentioned. And there was a oh-so-subtle overtone of "why are you questioning this? Do you want your son to fail?" when I pushed back a bit.  I remind you: unlike with the Critter - where I was, admittedly, lobbying to 'accelerate' her a year because of her headstart from the UK school system - I'm just suggesting that unless there is a specific, identifiable learning issue, we just keep the Boy moving along at a normal pace

In my subsequent and completely non-scientific set of conversations/research after the fact, here's what I'm finding.  There is a definite and growing inclination to hold boys back. (this probably isn't earth-shattering to anyone who's got a kid in school these days. But it was news to me).  The Boy is at the later end of the school calendar (August birthday), which puts him on the smaller side.  Have you read Malcom Gladwell's Outliers? There's a whole underlying premise around this involving Canada and hockey players. Go ahead and read it. We'll wait here. 

The other parents and educators I've spoken to about this topic have been more or less split on the issue. Some are all for creating any advantage they can and giving their child an extra year to mature. Others scoff at the notion, feeling that it creates simultaneously some sort of stigma at far too early an age (plenty of time for that sort of thing when they hit high school), and a heightened sense of pressure when they do enter 1st grade. "He's bigger now, so surely he should already have mastered long division, right? RIGHT?"

All of this has led to some interesting but rather stressful conversations between myself and my Bride. I'll admit that it's not helped by the fact that I started first grade when I was 5, and for the next nine years went to what had been the Georgia Military academy. My conditioning on the whole topic was kind of skewed the other direction. It also included learning how to stand at 'Parade Rest' by third grade.  But I sort of went along with things, despite my grumbling. More: I felt kind of chivvied by The System into starting a formal learning style "assessment" for The Boy. After all: what's the harm in learning more about his learning style? That's not a bad thing, right?  Except, somewhere along the way, it became titled an "IEP asessment," according to the documents. And oh, the documents. There is a veritable plethora of documents to be completed. (this is how you know I went to military school. Because I use words like "veritable" and "plethora" in the same sentence).

I more or less hit my limit with them when I got to the parts of the documents asking questions like:

Q: "What subject does he have the most trouble with?

A: He's 4. 

Q: "What types of things are likely to make him angry?"

A: He's 4.

Q: "What do you want your child to be when he grows up?"

A: I want him to be rich. So he can afford to put me in one of those really nice homes. Where the nurses occasionally come by and offer you ice chips and pudding.  

A: No seriously. He's 4. 

Honestly, I do recognize that the teachers have the best interest of the kid at heart. And some of the documents are meant to cover a broad range of ages. But all this because he didn't come in knowing the alphabet song or how to write his name without help?  To be fair, since the assessment period started (it takes several weeks), we've simultaneously started working more actively to incorporate some of the academic basics into after-school play, and gotten back glowing compliments from the teacher as to his progress. Yeah, yeah. We should have done this sooner. Please see the above comments about potty training, prom and second children.  How about we start with the "can you maybe work on some more of the academic foundational stuff at home, dear parents?" before we jump right into "YOUR SON IS DOOMED TO BE AN ASSISTANT FRY CHEF," next time, 'kay? 

He's happy. He's interested in school, books, drawing, and logic. He gets along exceptionally well with other kids of various ages.

I can't think of a better set of metrics for success for any little boy.  And, barring some unexepected result from the 'assessments', that's likely to remain my view.