Reflections on Preview of Playing to Win from The Atlantic: Soccer Isn't for Girly-Girls?

For a writer there is no greater feeling than people reading your work, sharing it, and thinking about it. I got a great taste of that feeling earlier this week when part of Chapter 4 of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture was excerpted at The Atlantic. The full title of Chapter 4 is, "Pink Girls and Ball Guys? Gender and Competitive Children’s Activities," and the Atlantic excerpt, "Soccer Isn't for Girly-Girls? How Parents Pick the Sports Their Daughters Play" focused only on the girls. The piece has been picked up and discussed on blogs (like Play It Safe Sports), U.S.-based newspapers (like Salt Lake City's Desert News), and even international outlets (like the UK's Mail)! Famous_Amos via flickr Pink soccer girl

The article generated a lot of thoughtful discussion on the Atlantic site, on my Facebook wall, on Twitter, and via email. I wanted to address four common points that were raised.

1) Not listening to kids- Many expressed dismay that parents didn't listen to their kids. That's obviously not true and given that all the activities were competitive, meaning kids had to try-out to make a team and do more practice than they would if they were just participating recreationally, if a child didn't want to participate it would be easy to self-sabotage. At the level I studied participation meant a non-trivial investment of time and money for families, so the kids were committed, for the most part.

That said, I do think it's fair to say that what parents choose to expose their kids to (even when they offer them a say) is shaped by parental desires and aspirations. In the Conclusion I liken this to a "buffet" and discuss the ways that family background influence what is placed on that buffet each weekend. Even if a child's choice isn't the parents' top choice, by paying for participation and getting their kids to practices and competitive events (remember, all the kids I studied were in elementary school at the time), parents are giving tacit approval.

Finally, to the point of what the kids think, all of Chapter 6, "Trophies, Triumphs, and Tears: Competitive Kids in Action," is devoted to interviews I did with 37 kids and interactions with children at camps, practices, games, and tournaments. For those interested in social science methods a good portion of the Appendix discusses these issues as well.

So right now I can only tease you to buy the book when it's out in two weeks and then let me know what you think! Hopefully this only whetted your readerly appetite. :)

2) Stereotypes- Many readers were struck by stereotypes-- and I was as well. In some sense traditional stereotypes appear to lay very well over each activity. That said, the picture is a bit more complicated. After an initial period, historically, of being associated with lower classes, ballet and dance became the domain of the upper classes in the US-- through much of the early half of the 20th century. To see a shift to sports for this group is a more recent phenomenon and speaks to increased educational opportunities for women.

3) What about the boys?- Don't worry, I didn't forget about the boys. They make an appearance in Chapter 4 as well. And if you though the stereotypes were bad for the girls, just wait. The section on boys and these activities is subtitled, "The Masculine Hierarchy: Jocks, Nerds, and 'Fags,'" so, yeah...

4) Starting young- Some readers expressed dismay when commenters said you had to start activities-- particularly soccer-- so young if you wanted to make your high school squad. Many commenters responded rightly that this is in fact true because if others have been developing the foot/eye coordination and specialized skills like heading, etc. from a young age, it's very hard to catch up later in life. This did not use to be the case, and of course some exceptions will exist of highly talented student athletes. But for the most part, this is what I found as well.

The same day as this piece appeared I did a TV appearance, a web chat, was quoted in an article, and did another web-TV appearance. Feeling very grateful these days to be reaching people on parenting and cultural issues and doing what I love-- while still having time to enjoy breakfast and dinner with my boys, while growing another (and, yes, it is irony that I wrote so much about girls and it appears I'll not have one of my own someday...)!