Marilyn Frye, in her classic paper “Oppression”, emphasises the systematic nature of oppression– that it is a system of constraints and barriers, which can only be understood when considered as a system. In teaching this, it can be useful to distinguish such a system from more isolated injustices and prejudices, but difficult to come up with examples which don’t feel like philosophers’ inventions. For anyone who seeks such an example, here’s a real one.

Jender-Son went for a visit at a school where we planned to start him in pre-school. Our first impression was excellent: they’re really proud of having kids from lots of different countries, and all the kids get story times in English, Spanish and Arabic. A friend has a daughter there and loves it. All was going swimmingly (well, if you consider not asking any questions at all about our son swimmingly) until the head teacher noticed that Jender-Son has an August birthday. Whereupon she informed us that he would always be the youngest in his class and this would be hard. She went on, “My husband has an August birthday, and he thinks it’s held him back his whole life.” I said “do you think we should be really worried?” She looked at me very seriously, and explained “It’s been proven that boys with August birthdays do less well academically. The important thing is not to push him, not to expect too much.” She went on to introduce him to a fellow teacher, telling them only his name and that he’s an August birthday.

Phase 1 of my response was guilt over having had a child in August and therefore blighting his life. But I moved quickly to Phase 2, in which I recalled that it’s definitely been proven that low expectations for children are self-fulfilling. And I grew enraged at the head teacher’s expression of a prejudice I’d never even known of before, August-Birthday-Boy-ism.* I don’t want my son’s time in school to be governed by a holder of this prejudice, even if they are immune to other prejudices. Jender-Son, if he stayed at this school, might well be seriously (and unjustly) disadvantaged.

But, very importantly, because he would not be the victim of various systematically interlocking barriers in other areas of his life, he wouldn’t be oppressed. The prejudice against boys with August birthdays is not a widespread one (I hope!), and it is one that can only operate in certain limited circumstances, like schools in which teachers both hold the prejudice and are aware of a child’s birthday. The various forces contributing to oppression on the basis of sex, race, disability, class, sexual orientation, and so on, are very different from this highly localised prejudice. (Hence its usefulness as a contrast case in discussing Frye on oppression.)

*Yes, it’s true that boys with August birthdays will for the first few years of school be less mature than classmates. Believing this doesn’t make one an August-Birthday-Boy-ist. But believing that this will blight them forever and that we should just accept this sad fact, and having no interest in individual traits of individual August birthday boys, does. (As noted earlier, for all I know this teacher would be fine and was just expressing herself badly– but what I’m considering here is what’s true if she was really expressing her attitude.)

10 thoughts on “August-Birthday-Boy-ism

  1. BTW being, by far the youngest didn’t seem to hurt me intellectually (although it is a pain socially).

  2. This doesn’t matter to your philosophical point, but just to help your guilt: whether being born in August is something to be worried about or not depends entirely on the cut-off dates of your school system. Where I live now, it’s Dec. 1, so being an November baby would be the problem. (And in fact, many parents I know with boys born in November hold their kids back a year, starting them in kindergarten when they’re about to turn 6 rather than about to turn 5.) When I was growing up, it was Dec. 31, so being a December baby would be the problem.

  3. I was born in August, so my parents put me in a “young fives” program, at the suggestion of one of my pre-K teachers, and I started kindergarten at 6. I’ve always done very well academically and graduated second in my class from high school. I’ve always felt lucky that I’d gotten an extra year to mature before going to grade school, all because my birthday was in August. So it can be a boon, too!

  4. We’re talking about differences in academic performance of a few percentage points (although these do persist into grades at age 16 or older) so I wouldn’t be too worried. I seem to recall performance at sport is more severely affected (in the UK).

  5. Again, not on the philosophical point.

    I was almost August (it’s my birthday next Wednesday, wee hee!) and my son’s birthday is August 30th. One of his best friends has a September 1st birthday which seems really crazy.

    My friend (born in August) read that August born kids are less likely to be good at sports (?!), my mum (primary headteacher for 20 years) says that the biggest difference is social maturity. Recently it was reported that fewer August-borns go to Oxbridge.

    My son, however, is off to a very prestigious school for which he won an academic scholarship. He barely lifted a finger to do this. When he started school (in UK we call it reception – age 4-5) it was suggested that I hold him back a year for his social and emotional maturity to catch up. Academically, he’d be going nuts.

    There’s still a big difference in the social and emotional maturity but I’ve always put that down to him being an only child for 10 years.

    Still, I’d have a look around at some other playgroups. If nothing else I’ve learnt to trust my own feelings about choosing schools etc for my son. If there’s something that doesn’t feel right to you, keep looking.


  6. In fact, in the US the cut-off date for something like junior league baseball is July 31, which is why, it is hypothesized, the best baseball players tend to be born in August – e.g., they start out the oldest and strongest, get the most practice, etc.

    The head teacher’s attitude, along with that of her husband, is so very strongly passive. It suggests such a thorough acceptance of place, and a sense that change isn’t possible. Given that attitude, I’d be reluctant to have a child there too, even if he was born in January! Goodness knows what else she thinks can’t be changed, but on the list could well be things Jender-son would benefit from and others not. Perhaps beautiful children are just naturally likeable, while others just aren’t.

  7. Bah, my July 29th-born son, one of the three youngest in his class, now going into third grade, was one of the earliest readers and has been consistently commended by teachers for his social skills. My March-born son was a different story.

    I would be pretty leery of a school whose staff treated children as instances of categories rather than as individuals. One might even speculate that their pride in having kids from different countries could be an example of that, if they prize “diversity” and define it so simplistically.

  8. […] aspect of the patriarchy. (NB: I’m not about to worry about him being oppressed – read this interesting post about patterns of oppression at Feminist Philosophers for more on the difference between experiencing one sort of oppression, […]

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