Monday, October 28, 2013

Playing to Win but Thinking for Yourself

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

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

Pedigree Revisited

Last month, I asked the question, "Do I really have to do this?" in regard to obtaining the "Competitive Kid Capital" Hilary Levey Friedman argues is so critical to middle- and upper-middle-class youth in her book Playing to Win.

I concluded, reluctantly, that I probably would. While some parents will undoubtedly sign their kindergarteners up for competitive soccer with gleeful abandon, I will be a much more ambivalent, circumspect participant in the rat race.

Since then, I had a interesting encounter that served to underscore my conclusion. I was having a phone interview for a consulting gig. After I explained my background and experience, the interviewer asked where I went to school. I told him.

"Oh," he responded, "that explains it," the that in question being my Ivy League academic credentials. Not the lengthy explanation of my ten years of experience. My degrees.

The experience was demoralizing for me because it served as a reminder of how often human beings rely on easy labels for categorizing and identifying others. My academic pedigree is short-hand for competence, deservedly or not. On the flip side, my husband's west coast state school background does not equally corroborate his just-as-impressive-as-mine resume.

Pathetic? Probably. Human? Definitely. Here to stay? Most likely. {Sigh}

The Business of Competitive Kid Capital

Back to Playing to Win, the concept of the "business" of creating Competitive Kid Capital struck me while reading last month. As Levey Friedman notes:
[T]he teachers and coaches...make a living by creating an environment to create Competitive Kid Capital and by creating and sustaining a base of families who believe that Competitive Kid Capital is essential to future success.
From organizing the actual events to equipment to miscellaneous merchandise,
The cottage industry of childhood competition captures families in a vulnerable moment and charges higher prices because they can, similar to what occurs in funeral markets.
Unlike the funeral industry, however,
[T]he industry of competitive children's after-school activities has become so commodified and profit-oriented, with little to no regulartion of their practices.
Yikes. I had not thought of the business aspect before this, but it makes sense. Our consumerist culture has yet left no stone unturned... why start with this one?

A recent New York Times Room for Debate feature asked the question, "Do competitive sports overwhelm childhood or enhance it?"

Let's play a game (see what I did there?): Match the title of the article to its author.

1. "Sports Teach Kids Valuable Lessons"

2. "Give Children Variety and Time Off"

3. "Keep Sports Fun"

4. "Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Too"

5. "A Hoop Dreams Reality Check"

6. "Parents Should Focus on the Big Picture"

A. Nicole M. Lavoi, Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sports

B. David Geier, American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine

C. Earl Smith, Sociologist

D. Mark Hyman, Author, "Until It Hurts: America's Obsession with Youth Sports and How it Harms Our Kids"

E. Stephen D. Keener, Little League International

F. Jim Thompson, Positive Coaching Alliance

Did you guess that Article #1, "Sports Teach Kids Valuable Lessons," was written by Author E, Stephen D. Keener of Little League International? He writes,
While striving to win, children learn about teamwork, leadership and sportsmanship, all of which can contribute to their development as solid citizens.
Well, of course he thinks so. It is in his best interest to believe in the benefits of organized youth competition.

And did you guess that Article #3, "Keep Sports Fun," was written by Author D, Mark Hyman, who writes,
We know why kids drop out of youth sports, too. They're not having fun anymore. They’re weary of the pressure. They’re tired of being yelled at by coaches and, sometimes, by their parents.
Not surprising from someone who wrote a book entitled, "Until It Hurts: America's Obsession with Youth Sports and How it Harms Our Kids."

Think For Yourself

My point is, I suppose, caveat emptor -- buyer beware. Before you sign your children up for fifty sports at the urging of the local coaches or drop out entirely and leave your children's proverbial dance card empty, think about where all these messages are coming from. Before you succumb to buying fourteen teddy bears emblazoned with the logo of your little one's dance squad, decide what is right for your family, for your children.

In the chapter in which she interviews the competitive grade-schoolers themselves, Levey Friedman speaks to a first-grade boy who says he does not like competition, that it hurts his stomach. She writes,
His parents both jumped in, saying that the more experience he gets, the less his stomach will hurt. Obviously children sometimes tell adults about their stresses, but the adults often try to dismiss or rationalize them.
Oh, please don't ever let me be that parent.

The inevitability of participating in these activities aside, I hope we all know that destiny is not foretold. While my Ivy League degrees have undoubtedly opened doors for me, I sometimes wonder if I would have been better off at a less pressurized undergraduate program, where I might not have felt so unprepared following my mediocre public school education. My husband, on the other hand, has created a very successful career for himself in finance "despite," as one might say, his lack of academic pedigree.

Ask yourself honestly how much is enough and how much is too much for you and your kids. Small changes may help enormously with coping with the stresses of American culture while not really changing the end game all that much.

After all, these are pretty first-world problems to have.


I am thrilled to announce our next book, Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink by Katrina Alcorn. From Amazon:

Mothers are the breadwinners in two-thirds of American families, yet the American workplace is uniquely hostile to the needs of parents. Weaving in surprising research about the dysfunction between the careers and home lives of working mothers, as well as the consequences to women’s health, Alcorn tells a deeply personal story about “having it all,” failing miserably, and what comes after. Ultimately, she offers readers a vision for a healthier, happier, and more productive way to live and work.
Our post on Maxed Out will be on Monday, December 2. Read along with us and add your two -- or fifty -- cents when we post!