Forever Young?

The pros and cons of keeping your child in pre-kindergarten

By Victoria Goldman


Although mom and dad will spend thousands on plastic surgery, peels and botox injections in search of the fountain of youth, junior, nevertheless, should be ready for kindergarten on time. New York City parents compete to get ahead at almost everything, and kindergarten is no exception.


“Why not let them have an extra year? No one who has done it has ever regretted it. Once they hit elementary school, it’s the big time and kids get anxiety disorders, especially if they have trouble sitting in their seats,” says Virginia Waters, Ph.D., a child psychologist with a practice on the Upper East Side.


While admissions directors at the private schools are looking for children who are really ready for kindergarten, public school children just have to make the birthday cut-off of 5 years old by Dec. 31. But some parents choose to hold their children back anyway.


For the most part, the schools want boys to be a bit older, especially if they have trouble sitting still. “There’s a lot of paperwork, often boys by first grade can have a meltdown,” says Waters.


“Basically, June, July and August birthdays fall into a gray area,” says Ronnie Jankoff, director of admissions at the Allen-Stevenson School. “What we look at in accepting boys for kindergarten is a willingness to separate, the ability to sit still, listen, follow directions and share and play with others.”


Can parents do all of this?


“Boys have a harder time, but girls can fool you. One little girl who was very interested in a lot of things in depth, she’d study wolves or ‘Star Wars’ but felt very uncomfortable with children her own age. When she grew up, she said she wanted to be ‘Mrs. Yoda.’” Her nursery school director suggested that they consider giving her another year, and they did. “Girls are often very verbal and have strong fine motor skills, but can be emotionally immature and have separation problems,” says Waters. “You think that they are quite capable of handling emotional and social situations when really they need more time.”


The standards for kindergarten aren’t what they used to be either. “We expect so much more now; it’s one to two years ahead of what we were learning at their age,” said one parent. Some children need to spend a PG (postgraduate) year at their nursery schools. “Many kindergartens are more academic and less transitional—some children benefit by being older and are more ready for academic demands,” says Nancy Schulman, director of the 92nd Street Y nursery school. “The chronological span of many kindergartners is skewed on the older end of the year. Often summer and fall birthdays are much younger than their classmates are. Another pre-kindergarten year can be an advantage in this situation," she says.


So, how can you tell if your child is ready for today’s kindergartens?


“You’ll know it and they’ll let you know it, too,” says Waters. “These kids are self-starters, they play school, spontaneously read books and explore a topic on their own, and often, but not always, have older siblings. They can be disappointed if they are not taught how to read on the very first day of kindergarten—but they often already know how.”


There are always exceptions. One child who wouldn’t let his mother leave was able to engage in activities that were going on in the classroom. But mom was sitting by the door the whole time. “He played well with others and had good pre-academic skills, too. I wouldn’t penalize that child. But I never have a parent sneak out,” says Jankoff, of Allen-Stevenson.


Holding a child back a year may result in their feeling awkward about being the oldest or the largest child in their grade. One admissions director told me that she sometimes recommends that a younger sibling in a family of three or four children has the advantage of being the oldest at school. “This way they won’t have to keep up with everybody the rest of their life.”


If your child’s ERB report describes him as, “Forthcoming and well spoken, pays excellent attention to directions and demonstrations, quickly grasps demands of all tasks, is highly verbal, eager to learn and is cooperative and diligent,” then you can be sure that your child is not only ready for kindergarten, but should probably be applying to Harvard or Yale early!


“Having a 19-year-old at home is a difficult concept!” says Schulman. “Some older children are socially and physically advanced and may be uncomfortable during their pre-adolescent years.”


“But,” counters Waters, “don’t worry too much about your child looking much older than his classmates—that’s usually not what happens.”


You’re only young once, so why not give the gift of childhood for an extra year?