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Jane Ahlin, Published March 24 2012

Ahlin: ‘Redshirting’ too loaded to apply to our children

Delaying a child’s entrance into school is one thing; calling it redshirting is quite another. Applied to young children, the connotations – all those associations and implied meanings of the word – don’t work. Instead, what comes across is confusing and off-putting.

Redshirt is a term used in collegiate athletics, a term used as a noun, adjective or verb. When athletes start college, a coach may decide not to have them play in games and instead “redshirt” the students for their first year. In fact, in their first year of college, athletes often are defined either as “true freshman” or as “redshirt freshman.” Sometimes, redshirt freshman simply are called “redshirts.” The point is that the term is all about eligibility for playing sports.

The NCAA decrees that college athletes have only four years of eligibility. With that in mind, coaches often decide to give athletes the experience of a year working out with a team before they play in competition against other schools. The idea behind the practice is that the player is stronger after a year of redshirting and still has four years of eligibility to contribute to the varsity team.

Since the term is all about college athletics, its popularity among parents talking about their 5-year-olds may deserve more examination than its getting.

Always wanting to give parents the benefit of the doubt, however, my guess about those who coined redshirt to identify kindergarten-age children not going to kindergarten is that they were looking for a term that didn’t carry a stigma. (I should say “perceived” stigma because I’m not sure a stigma exists anymore. More on that later.) It’s true that when we say one child starts school “on time,” a child the same age who waits a year is bound to hear someone say that he or she is being “kept back” or starting school “late.”

No doubt parents who latched onto redshirting believe the cultural perception of delaying a child’s start in school to be negative while redshirting a child sounds positive. On one level that makes sense. After all, the anticipated outcome of redshirting is positive in that the athlete expects to play on the team. On another level, however, it’s like calling garbage collectors “sanitation jockeys”: The term may sound nicer, but it’s not descriptive and doesn’t change the nature of the job.

Redshirting doesn’t change the reality of delaying a child’s start in school for a year, either. More to the point, the term redshirting comes with its own baggage. First and foremost, the word strongly implies a sports connection. The automatic assumption is that children – particularly boys – are kept back to make them more physically mature than their classmates when its time for high school sports. Intellectual and social readiness are at most secondary concerns. In fact, the notion that a late school start stigmatizes kids seems to be changing. The big difference is that the new stigma is a stigma for parents. At least anecdotally, I’m told that parents who don’t hold back their boys with spring and summer birthdays are openly questioned as to the wisdom of their decisions, especially if they can afford another year of preschool.

That brings up another point. Family income has become a major factor in the age children start school. Simply put, middle- and upper-income parents often hold children back; lower income parents rarely do. If the practice is increasing, social implications will have to be dealt with, too.

That said, my objection to the term redshirting is only to the term. In no way do I mean to minimize the dilemma for parents when the decision for their children starting school must be made and they aren’t sure which direction to go. With three children, my husband and I went through that dilemma three times. In fact, we made use of the school district’s readiness testing to give us the confidence that we were making the right decision. As a result, one of our children started school early, one started late and one followed the guidelines.

Words have power, and some are more loaded than others. Redshirt is one that is loaded. In the end, maybe that won’t matter. But for now, it insinuates the wrong things.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.