The Privilege of Passion

Last week the always reflective Motherlode ran a very thoughtful and insightful essay by Lisa Heffernan, "Our Push for 'Passion,' and Why It Harms Kids." by Abigail Swartz for NYTHeffernan actually makes the case that some forms of manufactured passion hurt not just the kids, but the whole family. Part of the reason why her essay is compelling (besides her clear, wise voice) is that she writes with self-reflection, admitting she herself has fallen victim to the "parental obsession with passion... encouraged by the college admissions process and fed by our own fears."

The essay rightly hones in on the role college admissions (though, in actuality it is more precise to say *elite* college admissions) in creating this push for passion: "At some point in the last 20 years the notion of passion, as applied to children and teenagers, took hold. By the time a child rounds the corner into high school and certainly before he sets up an account with the Common App, the conventional wisdom is that he needs to have a passion that is deep, easy to articulate, well documented and makes him stand out from the crowd." Heffernan also lasers in on one of the many reasons why this can be harmful to kids, "Pseudo passions can eat up our days and lay waste to any chance of finding real ones."

That said I need to make two important additions to this piece based on my research (much of it captured in Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture).

1) The ability to pursue a "passion" and invest familial/individual time and resources to do so is an enormously classed activity. When many families struggle for survival each month the notion that a child needs to find "their" thing is laughable not just in other parts of the world, but certainly in the US as well.

That said, some activities have been seen as worthwhile of passion in low-income communities as they can seem like a "way out"-- the traditional ones are basketball and football. In this case the endgame is usually not college (elite or otherwise) but professional levels of play. Talent and perseverance trump passion, and passion isn't seen as essential to the mix when there is almost a desperation.

The same can be said for other activities. One of my favorite passages from Joan Ryan's inside look at gymnastics and figure skating, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, captures this notion: "Bragg himself had been a swimming coach, but swimming held no magic. It couldn’t turn milkmaids into princesses. To him, skating was more than a sport. To succeed in skating was to succeed in life. It was a road to riches and recognition, and perhaps more important, it was a road to respectability. Skating offered a life of restaurants with cloth napkins, hotels with marble lobbies, a life where a girl from the wrong side of the tracks could be somebody." [Bragg actually gave up custody of his daughter to her skating coach]

Even the language of "passion" is a terribly upper/middle class one in the contemporary US. It is akin to helping each child "find their voice." Sociologists and anthropologists have written about this language and worldview elsewhere, but it's worthwhile to note again. The Bragg example has more to do with clawing your way up than surviving or just thriving. Passion is far too generous a word for the striving associated with activities, achievement, and class success.

2) During my fieldwork studying kids involved with competitive chess, dance, and soccer I came across a phenomenon in all three activities I hadn't anticipated. I named it "the problem of the high-achieving child." When one child at an activity site was high-achieving it decreased participation of kids in that age group as parents wanted their children to find his/her "passion." In this case, "passion" equals being the best (and honestly that is the subtext of the Heffernan piece).

But what is a child is truly passionate about an activity and they aren't number 1, or even number 2 or 10? I find it such a loss when a child who *loves* an activity is redirected away from it by a parent. Who knows when that child will grow, or have a breakthrough, or whether those shooting stars will fizzle out and the child who stuck with something because s/he loved it may eventually be "the best?" But even if "the best" moniker never applies, if a child loves something they should be able to pursue it. Maybe the NBA will never come calling, or a Division III school, or even the varsity high school team, but perhaps that child becomes Belicheck, or Coach Taylor, or someone who makes a difference in the life of a child someday as a coach or teacher because they still have that same passion?

Passion is a privilege in both senses (class and achievement) and we should recognize this as such to help all children, not just those faced with elite choices.

Playing around with Books and TV Shows

I've been writing elsewhere lately about various different interests-- my kids, playing, pageants, figure skating, books, TV shows, and child geniuses. You can check out these three different pieces by clicking on the titles:

1) Play, Outsourced- Written as part of the blog series, 28 Days of Play, about what impacts and at times impedes playing with our children. This focuses on the somewhat surprising reason (to me) I enroll my kids in classes like Gymboree, music, dance, etc. (Spoiler alert: the repetitive play of infancy and toddlerhood often bores me.)

28days_header_cal_2015-1024x3842) Two Insider Takes on Beauty Pageants and Figure Skating: The New Memoirs of Dick Button and Kate Shindle- This book review essay about two activities I have long loved- figure skating and pageantry/Miss America- appeared on Huffington Post Books.

3) Not Just High Achievers: What Child Genius says about American achievement culture- My thoughts at Psychology Today on the finale of the Lifetime series Child Genius, following up on my previous blog post about the interesting show.

I wonder if outsourcing my sons' play at times means they will be more or less likely to be on Child Genius someday, or compete in a figure skating competition (actually, my educated opinion is that the answer to that is yes), but they likely won't be competing in beauty pageants... Time will tell!

Protest Progress: Professional and Personal Development

August-- the heat, the uncertainty-- seem far away on this chilly November day. But I'm reminded of how I felt only a few months ago, particularly on the day I first found out what was happening at my high school in Michigan. And, now, today, when news of some resolution is shared. In August my family of four finally became a permanent family of four after my husband returned full-time after working out of town the whole time I was pregnant and nursing my second son, Quenton. As he returned I also ratcheted down breastfeeding as much. Suddenly, I had some more time, some more brainpower, but I was still slightly unmoored and exhausted by the events of the past year. What a year it was.



On Facebook-- where I found so much community, news, and adorable photos during my tough year-- I read a post a high school friend shared from a teacher I never had and still have never met in person. Her name is Barb Webb. She is a lesbian. She is married. She is pregnant. And she was fired for those reasons (ok, it's a little more complicated than that, but you get the gist).

My sense of civil rights, motherhood, injustice (and "a hot lunch for orphans!" [bonus points if you get the musical reference without clicking through... from a show I actually did at Marian, and in a world of small worlds, with the husband of one of the other organizers who I had never met before]) flared. I got involved. I wanted to speak out and make a difference in the way I knew best. So I wrote. I wrote this piece for The New Republic. I wrote this piece for Kveller.

What matters to me personally in that above paragraph is that I WROTE. I had actually not been writing much. I felt dried up (in more ways than one). I was worried I had lost my words, my voice. But this situation reminded me I hadn't. And that I was a mom to two and I could still write. And I had a voice that could hopefully effect change.

And now it seems we have. I say "we" because the Facebook group, I Stand with Barb Webb, numbers over 5000. I say "we" because nearly 75,000 from around the globe have signed our petition. I say "we' because we raised nearly $6000 to donate to our high school for professional development training about diversity and inclusion (announced today that the administration will accept the funds and get the program going). And, more personally, I say "we" because in many ways I feel more connected to my high school community than ever before. I feel connected to people I knew well, people I didn't know as well, and people I never met but who share the same alma mater because we all united to share our thoughts (not always agreeing) on a matter of personal and historical significance. These women, we women, we can be pretty amazing.

So, thanks again to Barb Webb for helping us all change in important ways-- including yours truly. Now, I hope Marian can continue to Be the Change, along with others in the world, in supporting love, equality, and acceptance for all.

A Bookworm's Dream Position: New Book Review Editor at Brain, Child Magazine!

When my name first appeared in Brain, Child Magazine in the Summer of 2013, I felt I had finally arrived as a writer. With the tagline "A Magazine for Thinking Mothers," I had long admired the publication, and dreamt of the day when hopefully something I wrote would appear on its glossy pages. I've been lucky enough to write other pieces for them and to get to know the amazing Editor-in-Chief, Marcelle (in real life) and many other team members virtually. So, to know that in the next issue my name will appear on the masthead is mind-boggling! That's because I am the new Book Review Editor for Brain, Child. I'll be writing book reviews and editing them monthly for the blog Brain, Mother. I will also be writing a book reflections column each month,  doing six different "Top Ten" book lists, and writing and editing book review essays for the Magazine's five print issues. As I wrote when I posted the news on Facebook the day the press release went out, "To say this is a dream job for me is a massive understatement. So excited to combine three of my favorite things in the world: parenting, reading, and writing (listed in alphabetical order to conceal my true preferences...)."

As I wrote in my bio, "Hilary is a true bookworm, who happened to be raised by a Miss America. This means that when she wore glasses in grade school she had fancy pairs (fuchsia polka dot, Scottish plaid, purple flowered), and that she still loves to read and write about glitz and glamour as much as she loves to read serious works of fiction and non-fiction." Here's some photographic proof for you:

Beautiful mother, gawky meThe fuchsia polka dot frames perhaps look more glamorous standing next to mom (see, we really look nothing alike!), Miss America 1970. Oh, and yes, that was an old school Pleasant & Company (now known as American Girl!) over-sized Samantha hair bow.

Fifth Grade School Picture- at my worstLest the Scottish plaid glasses, or my general fifth grade geekiness, feel neglected. Also, thank goodness for orthodontia!

As I write in my first talking about books column this month, Raising Readers, I have always read books like it was my job. It is rare to find me without a book (now digitally more often than not, but still).

new_002(A pre-glasses pic, and what I now look like since having LASIK while in grad school- one of the best decisions I ever made, despite the lost opportunity to rock crazy specs).

I hope to instill that same love in my sons, especially by implementing some of the suggestions written about in my column from  I'm Ready! How to Prepare Your Child for Reading Success by Janice Greenberg and Elaine Weitzman.

I also hope that they will appreciate all different types of reading materials, including poetry. Here is the first review I edited, written by Beth Eakman on Carrie Fountain's new poetry collection (about motherhood), Instant Winner.

Hope you enjoy and join me on the journey to look for meaning in books, together.

Books Are Living Things: Playing to Win continues to spark conversation

As my friend and scholar/writer Margarita Mooney likes to say, "Books have long lives." While Playing to Win is still less than a year old, I can see how this is true as the book continues to inspire questions, dialogue, and conversations in a variety of settings. In the past two months I've been lucky to speak (in person, in writing, virtually, and in the media) to a range of people who are interested in the topic of kids and competition including parents, students (undergraduate and graduate), and professors. Book cover

One of the questions brought up by almost every audience I address is the issue of inequality-- a hot topic these days beyond Piketty's recent work. The issue of educational inequality and how afterschool activities can lead to the unequal distribution of competitive/cultural capital among kids is one I have talked about before. These activities can be transformative for kids in multiple ways, and class is one of them. They can also offer opportunities to be exposed to new people and experiences.

This is one of the reasons I fell in love with scholastic chess while researching Playing to Win. Chess is diverse, as close to democratic as an activity can get, and a challenge. It promotes sportsmanship, logic, and long-term thinking. What is not to love? While I still can't really play, I got into the world of chess, even reading Chess Life and Chess Life for Kids each month, so having a two-page review of the book in Chess Life was a real thrill. The reviewer brought up some excellent points, but I had to take issue with the presentation of some of the numbers and explain that I absolutely value chess' diversity. Thankfully, the editors published my full response in a recent issue-- proof that dialogue continues and conversations on these important topics are ongoing!

Now I just need to get Carston playing with the pawns soon, hopefully in the next few months...