Hilary Levey is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at Princeton University. Below, she shares findings from her dissertation, “Playing to Win: Childhood, Competition, and the Credentials Bottleneck.”
Many parents work more hours outside of the home and their lives are crowded with more obligations than ever before; many children spend their evenings and weekends trying out for all-star teams, travelling to tournaments, and eating dinner in the car. What explains the increase in children’s participation in activities outside of the home, structured and monitored by their parents, when family time is so scarce? As the parental “second shift” continues to grow, alongside it a second shift for children has emerged — especially amongst the middle- and upper-middle classes — which is suffused with competition rather than mere participation. What motivates these particular parents to get their children involved in competitive activities?
Using evidence from three case studies (one academic, chess; one artistic, dance; and one athletic, soccer) drawn from 16 months of fieldwork, and 172 interviews — with 95 parents of elementary school-children, 37 of those elementary school-age children, and 40 teachers and coaches — I argue in my dissertation, Playing to Win, that the extensive time devoted to competition is driven by parents’ demand for credentials for their children, which they see as a necessary and often sufficient condition for entry into the upper-middle class and the good life that accompanies it. At the same time, of course, this new form of early competition reinforces a “less than level” playing field among children, in terms of class and gender.
That American families are busy is not surprising, especially to those who study family life and those who live it. But it’s not just that middle class kids spend their time in organized activities. What is critical, and rarely discussed, is the competitive nature of their extra-curricular lives. Many activities that were previously non-competitive have been transformed from environments that only emphasized learning skills, personal growth, and simple fun to competitive cauldrons in which only a few succeed.
Such competitive experiences were once limited to high school. Students entered athletic contests, joined debate teams, built “careers” as high school newspaper editors, and in hundreds of other ways sought to distinguish themselves in adolescence. For millions of middle class American children today, waiting until high school to prove one’s mettle would be a big mistake. The bottlenecks these kids worry about and will face require much more advanced preparation. Even the preschool set is busily trying to stand out from the crowd!
It is tempting to denounce these preoccupations as the hyper-fixation of neurotic parents who are living through their children, and many pundits are not shy about invoking analyses that are just shy of pathology. These parents are labeled helicopter parents who hover over their kids from infancy through college graduation, even until children secure employment after college. But are these parents crazy? No. Their children face very real bottlenecks through which they need to pass if they are going to achieve in ways similar to their parents. And the probability of that outcome appears to their parents — with good reason — to be less than it once was.
At the same time it would be a mistake to think that parents of kids as young as seven fixate on college admissions offices every Saturday out on the soccer field. Instead, they understand the grooming of their child as producing a certain kind of character and a track record of success in the more proximate tournaments of sports or dance or chess. (But were parents to think in directly instrumental terms about a thick admissions envelope, they would not be far off the mark: activity participation, particularly athletics, does confer admissions advantages, either through athletic scholarships or an admissions “boost,” giving students an edge when applying to elite schools.) These competitive activities are seen by many parents as the essential proving ground that will clear their children’s paths to the Ivy League because they help children acquire skills and focus their time and energy.
Playing to Win illustrates the ways in which competition is now a central aspect of American childhood for many, showing that countless boys and girls no longer simply play — they play to win.
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