Friday, December 17, 2010

Can You Really Succeed if You’re Young for Your Year? Outliers of Various Kinds….

Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers is a great book, and its author has a quirky sort of genius. A number of Gladwell’s points have peculiar relevance for parents and parenting—peculiar because Gladwell doesn’t talk about parents and kids much at all directly. I’ll start with the most obvious: Gladwell’s piece on the fact that the vast majority of players on Canadian National Hockey Team have birthdays in the first quarter of the year. This is, in essence, because hockey is a very important and competitive sport in Canada; it requires (unlike basketball) the use of a space that’s not easy to come by (skating rink); and the cut off age is January 1. The basic argument is that what starts out as a minor developmental advantage due to age ends up getting magnified every year: the slightly better kids get a lot more attention, thus making them better players, which makes them more likely to be selected the next year…and so on.

Some of these realities are hockey-specific, but not all of them. School districts with Talented and Gifted Programs select in a somewhat similar way (rarely do kids get second chances to play in, say, middle school). This often motivates people to hold a child back who’s on “the cusp” --or even just at the young end of his grade. This is especially the case with boys. A friend living in (very affluent) Westchester County, NY, told me that she’s facing pressure to hold back her son whose birthday is in the middle of the school year. The pressure is from other parents, since so many are keeping their kids at home for an extra year to give them an edge. I faced all this myself when dealing with my oldest daughter. She has a late birthday, as does her sister two years her junior. I didn’t like the idea of my girls being one year apart in school when they were two years apart in everything else. So for me, deciding for one was like deciding for both. In my search to figure out what was best for her I was amazed by the total lack of explanation. Every time I talked to someone about it, they told me to hold her back. But they could never give me a single good reason! As I often said to people, if we say it’s better for every child to stay back in these cases, the problem is the curriculum!

But Gladwell would probably be keeping his son back. And I see where he’s coming from: there are distinct advantages to being a big fish in a small pond. But I wonder if, in our pursuit of success that we can measure, we’re missing other factors. My sister in law has two brothers who were both young for their school year, both of whom went on to be real leaders in their time at the Naval Academy. The disadvantages of being young seemed to have worked to their favor in some way (something which Gladwell recognizes in fascinating detail elsewhere in Outliers.

There is a former student of mine who is a great counter example—I’ll call him “K.” K is the youngest of his family’s four sons. K is a bit on the young side, and his mother was undecided about what to do with him. She had a friend with a son whose birthday was close to K’s, and she decided that whatever her friend did her son, she’d do as well. The friend’s mom had her son start school; and so K did,too. K would seem like a prime candidate for bitterness over all this: he was a serious competitive swimmer in high school, and he (arguably, anyway) missed out on getting recruited as a result of his age. He probably could have gotten into a better college than the one where I teach (which is good, but not Ivy League material)—with all the advantages that represents—if he had been a grade behind.

But K isn’t bitter. Once he started college, he stopped swimming—and freed up a whole lot of time! An Electrical Engineering major, he’s about to graduate, and is poised to get a very good job in a time where jobs are scarce. And he doesn’t miss swimming at all.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read it yet (and I HATE recommending a book I haven't read) but Boys Adrift by Leonard Sax (Who wrote Why Gender Matters, which I really liked) is a book specifically on boys and education. He supplies a lot of reasons why our boys seem to be so "unsuccessful" these days- and points to the system and cultural bad habits, more so than the age of boys starting school.

    I'd love to read it with you and discuss.