Monday, September 30, 2013

How Harmful Is a Culture of Winning at All Costs?

Brilliant Book Club Playing to WinWelcome to the inaugural post of The Brilliant Book Club, a collaboration of five parent bloggers. To learn more about BBC, read this post or follow us on FacebookG+ or on Twitter with the hashtag #BrilliantBookClub.

And don’t forget to read below what my co-founders Lauren, Jessica, Sarah and Stephanie have to say about this month’s book, Playing to Win by Hilary Levey Friedman.

I wanted desperately for her to tell me I didn't have to do it.

I read most of Hilary Levey Friedman's book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, with a tight knot in the pit of my stomach. I am not a particularly competitive person. "Winning" has never been an all-consuming need for me, which would explain my swift exit from the world of finance.

So while reading her book about competitive chess, dance and soccer among middle class elementary school students, I was praying for a chapter, a section, a paragraph, even, that would justify my a priori refusal to participate in weekend-long chess tournaments for my future five-year-old. Because I think competition among babies is ridiculous. Because I do not want to hand my life over to dank gymnasiums and my limited living space to burgeoning shelves of trophies.

Really? I wondered. Do I have to do this?

Why Are We So Competitive?

Levey Friedman writes that two basic trends have driven competitive activities among young children. The first is demographics. The shrinking of the family means that parents are more invested in each individual child's accomplishments. Plus, Baby Boomers grew up in a period of limited resources for their unusually large cohort, and this scarcity has "predisposed Boomers to see life as a series of contests." (HLF, 45) A recent article in The Huffington Post about why Millennial yuppies are so unhappy basically makes the same point.

Then, of course, there is the "structural" explanation, exemplified by this quote from Harvard University's Dean of Admissions, William Fitzsimmons, in 2008:
Even fifth-graders in Wellesley, Newton, and Brookline [affluent Boston suburbs], who as adults will face international competition for jobs, should begin beefing up their academic resumes if they want a shot at an Ivy League education. (HLF, 219-20)
The truth is that university admissions processes have done the most to drive explicitly the rise of competitive extra-curricular activities because they take "participation in organized activities into account when making admission decisions." (HLF, 46)

Winning at Any Cost

Competition among first-graders seems distasteful at first glance. But who could argue with acquiring the five attributes Levey Friedman terms Competitive Kid Capital, namely:
(1) internalizing the importance of winning, (2) learning how to recover from a loss to win in the future, (3) managing time pressure, (4) performing in stressful environments, and (5) feeling comfortable being judged by others in public. (HLF, 92)
None of these traits is negative per se, with the exception, arguably, of the first. Yet can children not learn resilience and a little about winning and losing in more recreational, less bureaucratically organized and pressurized environment?

On top of the shudder-inducing idea that a fourth-grader needs to "master his nerves," as one parent put it, I was struck by just how much parents model bad -- even antisocial -- behavior. Here are a smattering of examples from the book:
  • Regarding scholastic chess tournaments and rankings: “[T]he system is open to manipulation, and parents who are in the know are aware of the ways they can stack the deck to advantage their child.” (HLF, 54)
  • Regarding a chess mom: “[S]he had a chess coach fired from her daughter’s school based on his legal status in this country when she thought her daughter wasn’t getting enough individualized attention from him.” (HLF, 81)
  • Regarding a chess father’s view of competition: “[L]earning to be a winner means learning to decipher other people’s lies and learning to fudge at times.” (HLF, 97)
  • Regarding sports such as soccer and softball: Parents "tamper with birth certificates to give [their children] an edge because older children are more advanced physically, mentally, and emotionally, which helps them succeed in competitive arenas." (HLF, 172)
Levey Friedman sums up the attitude as such:
Parents’ willingness to game the system across activities shows that they are sometimes more concerned with their children’s winning record, even in a manipulated system, than getting a fair outcome. The focus is on winning at any cost, a lesson that gets passed on to the children. (HLF, 173) (emphasis is mine)
Not exactly a world I want to live in, let alone a legacy I would like to hand down to my son.

Image Credit: Digitalart
My problem with competition as a primary mode of living is that it implies a zero-sum game. We are teaching our children that there are always winners and losers, but achievement and success are not necessarily so all-or-nothing in real life. Successfully defending and publishing a dissertation, for example, would be considered an achievement by most people, yet such success does not preclude others from doing the same. Nor does one’s acquisition of knowledge subtract knowledge from someone else.

I imagine I would be profoundly unhappy viewing every interaction as a win-lose, zero-sum competition. There is some evidence that the reason lawyers are an unhappy lot is in part due to the zero-sum nature of their work. In a 2005 paper entitled “Why Lawyers Are Unhappy,” Martin Seligman maintains,
it is likely that negative emotions (i.e. anger, anxiety, and sadness) have evolved from zero-sum games…. To the extent that [a] job consists of zero-sum situations, one can expect the negative emotions -- sadness, anxiety, and anger -- to pervade the job.
I would argue that those who are most successful in life -- defined as professional achievement and personal fulfillment -- look for and find the “win-win,” or positive-sum game, in every situation.

Reality Bites

Levey Friedman notes the lack of studies decrying the negative impact of engaging in fierce competition at such an early age, mainly because this phenomenon is relatively new (only 20 or so years old). Some recent sociological studies, she writes, have found that “participating in organized activities is not associated with greater stress for kids.” (HLF, 208)

She mentions such possible negative effects as burnout and loss of creativity, and acknowledges that this level of competition makes some kids miserable, as with the boy who got stomach aches before every tournament. But in her interviews with the kids, she reports most seem to enjoy the games and competition.

And what of the parents? Levey Friedman quotes Pamela Druckerman, author of Bringing up Bébé: “Nobody seems to like the relentless, unhappy pace of [middle-class] American parenting, least of all parents themselves.” Indeed, there is evidence that “competitive activities…actually create additional work for parents and take time from other household tasks.” (HLF, 223, 33)

Despite their displeasure, parents perpetuate the frenetic pace. Levey Friedman began her study with the intention of interviewing kids and families who were engaged in non-competitive activities. But, she says, “I had such a hard time finding any noncompetitive elementary school-age kids…, I stopped actively looking for them.” (HLF, 215)

Why is everyone engaging in this unhappy, time-sucking rat race? In Chapter 1, Levey Friedman claims “Parents know that academic credentials matter.” (HLF, 47) The statement seems obvious, almost banal, but it bothers me. Yes, of course, going to college is important in today’s service-based economy. But with college mostly par for the course among the middle class, what really is the material difference between going to Harvard or, say, NYU, UCLA or UVa?

Levey Friedman quotes Dalton Conley, Dean of the School of Social Sciences at NYU, who wrote an article in 2012,
detailing research that suggests it does not matter whether or not you attend Harvard or schools like it when it comes to future earnings. Yet Conley writes, “Such evidence aside, however, when I take off my social-scientist hat and put on my parental cap, I can’t imagine not taking my kids on a coast-to-coast college tour….I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t pay for an SAT prep class. And damned if I let them just hang out…after school rather than pursue serious internships and other extracurriculars.” (HLF, 216) (emphasis is mine)
And therein lies the rub. When push comes to shove, how many of us are willing to “jeopardize” our children’s chances at success? How many of us are willing to go so far against the fray that our children will be home alone on weekends while friends are at tournaments? With colleges explicitly requiring such activities, who among us is willing to say no?

Whether or not it is "ultimately dysfunctional class frenzy," the reality, Levey Friedman writes in conclusion, “is that as long as winning remains important in American culture, playing to win will remain a central focus in many American childhoods.” (HLF 220, 227)

Image credit: m_bartosch

Is Culture Inevitable?

At a very basic level, success is about resilience in the face of adversity. Being able to participate in a community (as opposed to floating above and slightly separate from the fray) and at the same time, not being immobilized by its flaws and exigencies.

Short of the unlikely event of leaving the U.S. entirely, Henry and I will soon confront the cultural norms of a society obsessed with winning. Wishing it away will not make it so.

How then, to ensure he “succeeds,” that is, navigates his environment without breaking down? How do I teach him to internalize “competitive coping skills” (HLF, 212) while at the same time imparting the idea that winning isn’t always everything?

How, indeed, do I teach him perspective in light of my own extreme ambivalence about our Machiavellian culture of winning?

Is this culture inevitable? I had trouble reconciling Levey Friedman’s observations and conclusions with another popular and seemingly opposing notion that the Millennial generation is “lazy” and “non-competitive,” exemplified by this recent article in the Wall Street Journal about endurance athletics.
"There's not as many super-competitive athletes today as when the baby boomers were in their 20s and 30s," said Ryan Lamppa, spokesman for Running USA, an industry-funded research group…. Now, a generational battle is raging in endurance athletics. Old-timers are suggesting that performance-related apathy among young amateur athletes helps explain why America hasn't won an Olympic marathon medal since 2004. (emphasis is mine)
It made me wonder if some of the competitive, cut-throat behavior we are witnessing does, in fact, stem from the Baby Boomers. Perhaps Generation X parents like me have the opportunity to shift the balance of power away from a relentless focus on winning at all costs.

Or perhaps the cultural change will only occur when Millennials themselves become parents. As a Gen Xer who entered motherhood relatively late in the game, three months shy of my thirty-seventh birthday, I just might benefit from such a sea change.

One can only hope.

What do you think? Do your school-aged children participate in competitive extra-curricular activities? What are the pros and cons?


Please be sure to read the posts by my Brilliant Book Club co-founders:

Lauren @ Omnimom: Playing to Play (And Not to Get into College)

Jessica @ School of Smock: In Praise of Parenting...Like a Sociologist?

Sarah @ Left Brain Buddha: The I.V. League? Being Mindful of Why We Compete

Stephanie @ Mommy, For Real: From Little League to the Ivy League?