By Joshua Benton
We here at The Dallas Morning News do not, traditionally, consider it our role to dictate the details of your sex life.
But if you want your next spawn to rise to the top of his or her class, here’s a bit of advice: Listen to the mistletoe and snuggle up to your loved one some time around Christmas Day.
That should put your kid on track for a mid-September birthday – and a vastly improved chance at being high school valedictorian.
Confused? That advice is based on a little experiment I did recently on the connection between a child’s birthday and academic success in school. But it has larger implications.
In Texas, kids are supposed to enter kindergarten if they’ve turned 5 by Sept. 1. Individual school districts are allowed to sneak in younger kids, and parents can choose to hold their kids out of school for an extra year. But the vast majority of kids start school in that one-year window.
How do those kids turn out years later, when it comes time for graduation?
The News publishes a list of the area’s valedictorians. I pulled all 207 of this year’s into a spreadsheet and used driver’s license records to look up their dates of birth. (I found 165 of them.)
The results may surprise you. In that graduating class, the oldest group of kids should have been those with September 1988 birthdays. That birth month produced 17 area valedictorians.
The youngest group of kids – the ones with August 1989 birthdays – produced only three.
In other words: It’s a lot harder to end up on top if you’re the runt of the litter.
The pattern extends beyond those extremes. Kids born in the first three months of that yearlong window were twice as likely to become a valedictorian as those born in the last three months. And a substantial number of valedictorians – 17 – were a full year older than they should have been, suggesting they had been held out of school for an extra year as toddlers.
Now, why would that be? Developmentally, there isn’t that much of a difference in the brain of an 18-year-old and, say, a 17-year-and-8-month-old. You wouldn’t expect one kid, on average, to be substantially smarter than the other.
But there is a substantial difference between a 6-year-old and a 5-year-and-8-month-old. When kids are young, a few months can make a big difference. Older kids may be identified from an early age as “smart” because of their age advantage. The younger ones might be tagged as “slow.” That can be true even if they have the same natural ability.
Teachers and parents create their images of these kids when they’re still small – and those images follow kids all the way through school.
You can see this sort of pattern in many places where a birthday cutoff is used to separate people.
For instance, 10 years ago, the international body that governs soccer decided to change the way it breaks children into age groups for select team competitions. Instead of letting kids move from age group to age group as their birthdays passed, it decided to set a uniform date that would be the cutoff point for everyone.
That date was Jan. 1. From that point on, kids with birthdays early in the year would always be the oldest, and kids born in November and December would always be the youngest.
As a result, the U.S. national soccer team for boys 15 and younger skews the way you’d imagine. The team has 24 members, and 17 of them have birthdays in January, February or March.
Again, does just a few months of age difference mean that much in the physical abilities of a teenager? Maybe.
But the bigger differences are when these kids are younger – when they’re playing their first soccer as 5- and 6-year-olds. Older kids, whose physical skills have developed a bit more, get singled out for the most praise. They get access to the best coaching. Their parents become convinced they have the most innate talent.
So what’s my point? My little calendar experiment reminds us of three truths about how we teach our children.
First, it’s a reminder that the images we assign to our children when they are young have real staying power. A boy told he’s slow as a second-grader can internalize that message for years. A girl told she’s bad at math in elementary school becomes a teenager who uses “I’m bad at math” as an excuse for not trying hard in Algebra II.
Second, it’s a reminder that delaying a child’s start of school, whatever its moral component, works.
Some choose to hold back their kids an extra year and start kindergarten when they are 6 instead of 5. They’d rather make Junior the biggest kid in the class instead of the smallest.
It’s a move particularly popular in wealthy districts, where competitive pressures are often fiercer and parents can easily afford another year of child care. I wrote an article a few years back that showed a child in Highland Park was roughly four times more likely to start kindergarten at 6 than a kid in the rest of Texas.
But parents should remember that someone is always going to be the youngest. By moving their kid to the start of the line, they’re pushing everyone else closer to the back of it. Few would consider it a crime to be selfish on your child’s behalf. But parents should still be aware that it’s, well, selfish.
Finally, it’s a reminder of just how much of what a school has to deal with is completely out of its control.
If 13 years of schooling can’t close the gaps caused by birthdays a few months apart, how much do you think it can do to close the gaps between a child born in poverty and one born into a middle-class home?
If some significant portion of a kid’s high school grades is based on his birthday, how much of it do you think is based on his childhood access to health care, or the lead in the tap water, or his parents’ ability to read to him at home?
Finally, an announcement: This will be my last column for a while. I’ll be spending the next academic year on a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. There I’ll practice wearing tweed jackets, hating the Yankees and pronouncing “chowder” in a comical Kennedy accent. We’ll meet again on these pages next summer.