Redshirting, and How the Rich Rig the Game for Their Kids

I have a piece at The Week arguing that if we want to encourage parents to allow their kids to take failure-prone risks that lead to innovation, we need to reduce the downside consequences of failure. Parents (typically affluent ones) behave sensibly when they drill their kids into conformist, high-success paths because tumbling to the bottom of the economic ladder in the U.S. is an especially miserable experience.

While some dread a rise in highly-structured childhood because it might kill innovation, I tend to worry about how unfair these child-rearing trends are for the non-affluent. It functionally rigs the game against the non-rich.

For the most part, game-rigging analyses are focused on the ways in which affluent parents can invest so much more resources into helping their kids do better at things that we use to gauge merit. For instance, much is made of the fact that children in the richest fourth of families receive nearly 7x more enrichment spending than children in the poorest fourth of families.

This kind of inequality is serious and real, but the game-rigging actually gets more troubling than that. With enrichment spending, at least it can be said that the money is going towards increasing the skills, talents, and education of those who receive it. In the parlance, it increases human capital. The more disturbing game-rigging is that which targets purely positional advantages that don't actually improve the absolute abilities of those who benefit from it.

The most fascinating strategy of this sort is something called redshirting. In this apparently growing trend, children (disproportionately affluent and disproportionately male) are entered into kindergarten one year later than they normally would be. The idea is that doing so will mean that the kid, on account of being older, will be the most developed among their peers. As a result, the kid will dominate sports and academic competitions throughout their K-12 education. The net result of such dominance will mean that the kid gets into better colleges and eventually better jobs and a better life.

Unlike strategies aimed at rigging the game in your kids favor by making them smarter, this strategy does it by putting them against people who are younger than them.  It simply moves your kid ahead of others by competing them against people from the grade below the one they are really in, developmentally speaking.

It is stuff like this that really should prime the pump in favor of reconstructing our society on much more egalitarian lines. When the competition to avoid the middle and bottom is so intense that it encourages people to do things like red shirting (or segregate schools on class lines), it's clearly outrun its socially useful purpose.