The Benefits of Maturity

Back in May, I wrote about how age cut-offs for Little League baseball might influence talent in the majors. It wasn’t my theory, I was just inspired by some work on the NHL and World Cup soccer players over at Freakonomics. Also, here is an article that the two Steves wrote for the NY Times Magazine. They were using data to examine the work of psychologist Anders Ericsson.

Levitt and Dubner argue that age-cutoffs can can give the impression that older children in the same age bracket are better than younger children. The older children may be viewed as better by outsiders, and may also enjoy what they are doing because they excel.

Since youth sports are organized by age bracket, teams inevitably have a cutoff birth date. In the European youth soccer leagues, the cutoff date is Dec. 31. So when a coach is assessing two players in the same age bracket, one who happened to have been born in January and the other in December, the player born in January is likely to be bigger, stronger, more mature. Guess which player the coach is more likely to pick? He may be mistaking maturity for ability, but he is making his selection nonetheless. And once chosen, those January-born players are the ones who, year after year, receive the training, the deliberate practice and the feedback — to say nothing of the accompanying self-esteem — that will turn them into elites.

It turns out that parents are now catching on, not just in sports, but in education. In an article in today’s NY Times, Elissa Gootman writes on how parents are now holding their children back from starting school, so that they will be the oldest, rather than the youngest.

Children who turn 5 even in June or earlier are sometimes considered not ready for kindergarten these days, as parents harbor an almost Darwinian desire to ensure that their own child is not the runt of the class. Although a spate of literature in the last few years about boys’ academic difficulties helped prompt some parents to hold their sons back a year, girls, too, are being held back. Yet research on whether the extra year helps is inconclusive.

Fueled by the increasingly rigorous nature of kindergarten and a generation of parents intent on giving their children every edge, the practice is flourishing in New York City private schools and suburban public schools. A crop of 5-year-olds in nursery school and kindergartners pushing 7 are among the most striking results.

“These summer boys have now evolved to including girls and going back as far as March,” said Dana Haddad, admissions director at the Claremont Preparatory School, in Lower Manhattan, referring to children who turned 5 in those months but stayed in nursery school. “It’s become a huge epidemic.” In some corners, the decision of when to enroll a child in kindergarten has mushroomed from a non-issue into an agonizing choice, as anxiety-generating as, well, the private school kindergarten admissions process itself.

I have a September birthday and so does my father. He started school early, and though he rose to the top of his class—valedictorian of his high school and graduated from Duke in three years—he didn’t like being the youngest kid in his class. So, I started school late. What did it get me? Well, let’s just say I was nowhere near being valedictorian (like both of my parents …what a let down that must have been ;-) ) and Duke wouldn’t have taken me even as a legacy. Lucky for me, I got my act together in college.

3 Responses “The Benefits of Maturity”

  1. Scott says:

    A college basketball coach I know enrolled his son a year late so he will be older when he graduates high school. He did this hoping his son, who will be 19 when he graduates, will be bigger, faster, stronger, and more mature than the athletes he plays against making it more likely that he will be offered an athletic scholarship. This coach claims this is a common practice among coaches.

  2. J.C. Zannis says:

    Yes, but did being born in september help turn you into a power hitting first baseman?

  3. Brandon Musler says:

    I heard that’s what Julio Franco’s parents had in mind too.