Nobody says it out loud but I believe many parents who consider and/or go through with deferring their child to start school a year later think it: have I let my child down? Have I not spent enough time speaking to them or playing with them or reading to them? Why aren’t they as ‘ready’ for school as their peers seem to be? Children have started school at this age in this country for 150 years so what have I done wrong? And the ultimate taboo: am I a bad parent?
NO, NO and NO again. It’s not your fault.
Even kids from affluent socio-economic backgrounds without attachment issues or the risk factors of poverty (both well known to impact on child development) and despite having been read to every day and having hands on, engaged parents still get delays.
For a long time I felt ashamed of myself as I thought I must be responsible for my child having a ‘deficit’ (I knew before Henry was two that he had a speech delay) and despite the well-meaning comments from professionals that he was still young and that I shouldn’t compare him to others, I knew that at some point there would be a diagnosis which there was – a comprehension and expressive (vocabulary) delay.
He’s now four and can’t always speak in sentences or recite full nursery rhymes or answer many straight-forward questions correctly like other kids his age can. My husband and I both have degrees, professional jobs and a good vocabulary (socio-economic background and parents’ level of education, particularly the mother’s, are well established predictors of a child’s future outcomes). We also have books in almost every room in our house (yes, you’ve guessed it, yet another predictor) and there have been no adverse childhood experiences.
However, the rarely focused on truth is that even advantaged kids still have language delays and other issues. I understand the paucity of research in this area as it makes sense to focus on analysing the factors where the greatest impact can be made for the greatest number and my understanding is that good parenting and the additional benefits wealth can bring generally help compensate for early delays over time.
However, the absence of evidence for this cohort of children only perpetuates the entrenched cultural mindset in the UK that ALL children should be ready for school at the same time and that if you defer them you are ‘holding them back’ (that phrase makes me prickle every time I hear it as it is loaded with judgement about my failure as a parent and ignorance about the abundance of research which proves children develop at different rates).
Just because there are things that can influence a child’s development, sometimes a child (like mine) has a ‘delay’ regardless of having had a solid attachment to a main caregiver, an excellent home learning environment, no adverse childhood experiences etc etc.
Henry also still bites other children occasionally. I’m not proud of this and in fact I am humiliated that I feel I have to use it as an example on the application to my local authority for a further year of nursery funding for his deferred year in order to show that my child is still also developing his ability to self-regulate his emotions (yet again another marker of future success) and would benefit from more time to get to grips with this.
However, Upstart Scotland’s research has taught me that while some of my child’s behaviours might not be socially appropriate, they are developmentally appropriate and when you see things through this lens, the guilt washes away. This is not to encourage parents to abdicate responsibility for teaching their child appropriate behaviours but it helps to view undesirable behaviours as a learning opportunity for a child who is naturally pushing their boundaries rather than seeing the behaviour as a failure of your parenting.
I am not a bad parent. For I long time I thought I must be but I have reflected and soul-searched and questioned myself – often through tears and frustration. I have read parenting books, scholarly articles and blogs and care deeply about my child’s development. He has a delay. It took me a while but I’ve now accepted that and I’ve stopped beating myself up about it too.
My first child is happy, well-mannered and is progressing well in school so I’m lucky I can take reassurance from that that I’m not a completely useless parent and that I know what’s best for my kids. But what if it’s your first child you want to defer and you don’t work in education or the public sector and know how things work there or how to find out about your rights? What about parents who are called to meetings with experienced professionals trying to convince them that they know their child better? What about parents struggling to make ends meet who have no choice but to send their child to school despite their misgivings about their ‘readiness’? It’s simply not fair.
More needs to be done to challenge our steadfast cultural mindset that ‘earlier is better’ (I can’t say that other phrase I hate so much again here). It’s not just about transition, it’s about a full life.
I have been so heartened by the Give Them Time campaign. It has given me the confidence to pursue what I know is in the best interests of my child – his speech and understanding will be so much more developed by Aug 2020 and he’ll be able to enjoy school much more fully then rather than be bewildered and potentially chided for non-conformity this Aug.
Upstart Scotland gave me relief from my parental guilt; the Give Them Time campaign gives me hope.