PLAYING TO WIN Turns 3 (and 4!)

It has been almost exactly three years since Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture was released. And people continue to read it, which is definitely an amazing feeling. In fact, sales are up this year! Mostly this is thanks to professors assigning the book/excerpts in classes, and I can tell you that few emails are better to read than those that come from undergrads assigned to read your book sending you emails/thoughts/complaints/suggestions. So, thank you! As I teach the book myself now, and still speak to parent/school/community groups about issues related to competitive afterschool activities, I do have some things I would do differently now, if I could.

  1. Technology- Back when I was doing fieldwork for Playing to Win technology was an issue that I could have highlighted more. By this I mean not only the rise of iPhones and iPads, but also the role of technology in the activities themselves (websites ranking young players nationally, eliminating small ponds almost entirely) and in the college application process (both IT like the rise of the Common App which makes it easier to apply to more schools at once, and transportation technology that makes it easier to get to farther flung locales). Since I concluded fieldwork technology has only increased, making long (soccer) road trips easier for some thanks to iPads, and continuing to increase teaching and training capabilities with chess. Moreover, traditional media, but especially social media, has made stars out of young competitive dancers in a way unimaginable a decade ago. So, in short, technology would be a much bigger part of the Playing to Win story today.
  2. Inequality/pathways- As I've previously blogged about, I should have *explicitly* addressed inequality more. This is particularly true when it comes to the role that competitive afterschool activities play in reproducing class inequality, especially as it relates to the unequal distribution of competitive kid capital. So I would have hit that over the head a bit more. Similarly, while I say it, I needed to emphasize even more that pursuing the pathway of competitive afterschool activities is not the only way, or even required, for elite college admissions (but now nearly all the Playing to Win kids are in fact college age, and I know where some ended up, so it would be interesting to follow-up and present where they go and how they and their families think the youth activities did or did not make a difference). That said, if you are applying to these schools from areas like Wellesley, MA or Marin County, CA or Winnetka, IL, then this is likely the path you will need/want to follow. In fact your childhood family will likely have made choices similar to many Playing to Win families during, or even before, you were in grade school. I make these statements without any value judgment. Instead I emphasize that, for better or for worse, this is how the world of upper-middle class American childhood is currently organized, and the book explains how and why it is organized in this way (without suggesting ways to change it, or even if it ought to be changed). The goal is to give the reader context to make their own decisions and create an informed opinion.
  3. Advice to parents- All that said, many readers/audiences *do* want more advice, and practical advice at that. For instance, how to decide on a particular competitive afterschool program, or coach? Or, when to know it is time to stop? I have not only informed opinions here, but also some answers drawing on research outcomes by both myself and others. So I likely would add more of that in an updated conclusion, even if it's not "traditional" in an academic book. It would build on my "buffet" approach. Or, you could just invite me to speak to your group to learn more. ;)

It has been interesting to see how all the Playing to Win issues are beginning to play out in my own life now that I am a parent (when the book came out I was expecting #2). My now 4.5-year-old has sampled all three of the Playing to Win case studies (and then some).

  • Chess- This is probably the most "us" activity in my family unit. When I posted that Carston had started chess on Instagram I wrote, sincerely, that, "For anyone who knows us, that this is happening is perhaps 0% surprising."

I would still not say that he is really playing chess, but he knows how the pieces move and he is making an attempt. Carston really likes games and puzzles, and has good spatial awareness, so this could be a good fit.

First ever #checkmate! #littlemaster #chess #rhodyboy #scholasticchess

A photo posted by Hilary Levey Friedman (@hleveyfriedman) on

That said, I know how much work you have to actually put in to be good at chess, even at young ages, and unclear if that will be in the works. At the moment he only plays with his instructor, never with a parent. Soon hopefully he can play with other kids and perhaps in kindergarten play in some non-rated tournaments and see how he likes it (especially given that he is the child who WAILED after losing Chutes & Ladders, a game which I explained is almost entirely due to chance).

  • Dance- This has been a much more textured experience thus far. He actually did a dance class and recital last year, before we moved to Rhode Island. The recital wasn't a very positive experience because he didn't feel very prepared (they started the routine about a month before the recital, which doesn't work great with 3-year-olds!). Also, even at the recital, the littles didn't perform until after intermission, which meant sitting through a lot before their turn. But when we moved to Rhode Island I knew that there were several great dance studios in the area. I did quite a bit of online research watching videos (for technique), reading teaching philosophies, and looking at schedules/curriculum. I was very happy with the studio I settled upon and he generally had a great experience in a tap/ballet combo class. I especially loved that the dance studio doesn't have observation windows and only allows parents to observe twice per year (this is part of that practical advice I mentioned above that I give- I tell parents do your research BEFORE you sign up, and then step back and let the teacher/coach/program handle the instructing because chances are very slim you actually know more about instructing/teaching little people in a particular activity). Here he is at the second observation in the spring.

Someone was super excited I came to observe his combo class this week! #boysdancetoo #littletapperswag #beourguest #rhodyboy #zulily

A photo posted by Hilary Levey Friedman (@hleveyfriedman) on

I noticed one particular mom at the observation week. She had brought in a high quality camera and sat off a bit by herself (a few seats down from where most of the other moms had clustered in the chairs in the center of the room). When it came time for the kids to "perform" what they had learned already of their recital routine, this mom got very agitated. I saw her go up to her daughter and say something, and then (keyed to her at this point with my fieldworker hat on and not my mom hat) heard her hiss from her seat, "You know this! Why aren't you doing it right?!" Nothing so out of the ordinary unfortunately in a lot of kids' activities, but not someone I'd want to hang with as a mom.

When it came time for the dress rehearsal I noticed both she and her daughter weren't there, but thought maybe they had left the class/studio. But lo and behold on recital day they were there. Oh, yes, they were there.

Again, the camera was around her neck (I was a backstage mom mainly because Carston was the only boy-- more on that in a few) and she was backstage to try to get good snaps, not to help the kids (in fact I took her daughter to the restroom before the performance as she was positioned in the wings already). In any case, when they went out to perform of course the kids were a tad overwhelmed by the stage lights and audience. They had a helper who tried to get them into their line-up spots as quickly as possible. This little girl-- I'm sure partly because she missed dress rehearsal-- was late to her spot and confused at the beginning. Her mom, beside me in the wings, starts saying, "Someone has upset her! Oh, GREAT, now she's not going to do the routine the right way!" She kept going on and on and I finally said, "They are adorable, and they are only 4-6 years old, it's no big deal!" Needless to say she walked away from me to a wing further upstage where she proceeded to stage whisper at her daughter! By the time they finished the routine (which they ALL did admirably for their age) the little girl came offstage in TEARS.

Now, I have been to about 20 child beauty pageants. I have been to more dance competitions than I can count. I have been to double-digit chess tournaments where tears happen all the time. But I never saw something like this. Instead of comforting her crying daughter this mother stalked off with other kids from the class. It was deliberate and it was cruel. I tried to comfort the little girl, while telling all the kids (including mine!) that they did a great job. The mom finally took the girl off on her own. Poor thing.

Note I say all the other little girls, because my guy was the only guy in this class. He's started to notice things like this a bit more, but it still doesn't really bother him. About halfway through the year he told me he didn't want to keep doing dance though. We talked about it and he mentioned the "girls" weren't friendly to him (which I am guessing was some combination of being a boy, being a touch younger, and not going to school with any of them), which I didn't quite believe. Note every time he actually went to class he was happy. But on his own he came up with a compromise, "I will do the recital, but after that, no more dance." I agreed that made sense.

Then the dress rehearsal happened. Now first of all, you can't tell me this isn't a little guy who wanted to be there:

img_7405At the dress rehearsal they had some trophies out. Those gold, somewhat cheap and tacky, trophies I write about in Playing to Win. And my child was SEDUCED by them. "Mommy, how do I get that?!" We asked the studio owner and she explained that after you do five years of recitals you can earn one of those trophies. To which he immediately declared, "Ok! I am going to do five!" I said we would talk after the recital. And sure enough he said he did want to keep dancing this year. So he'll be back in a combo class and we will see what happens... But it blew my mind to see the trophy culture up close and personal and see how effective it can be with little kids.

  • Soccer- Of the three Playing to Win case studies this has been the least successful by far, especially for my older son. Again, before we moved to Rhode Island, he had tried soccer. But the soccer he did was a class in a gym, not outside on a field trying to work with teammates. He started off the "season" super psyched.

93a(If you read this blog regularly you may remember my post last year about what to do about those pink shin guards...)

And the first practice was a success:

101But things quickly unraveled for two reasons. 1) My child (much like his mother) doesn't love being cold. And when the weather turned his attitude turned as well. Not much to do about that with a 3-year-old... 2) More significantly, the "coach" of his team was not very engaged. He never once referred to the kids by their first names-- in fact, I'm not even sure he ever knew them. That just doesn't fly with 3-year-olds. He knew about soccer, but not how to instruct such young kids. The "head" coach for the little ones did have great energy and activities, and when Carston had him he liked soccer much better.

But this reminded me of advice I give to others: Always ask *who* will be working with your child. A program might be great, but if you don't know who will actually work with your child, no guarantees. Many think it will be "easy" to work with the youngest kids, but it's actually quite a different skill set to do it well.

Following advice I also give others-- to stick with the commitment you made but not recommit if your child hates something-- we aren't doing soccer again this year. Until very recently whenever I asked he adamantly said he didn't want to do soccer. His interest is (only slightly) piqued again post-Olympics, but I decided that better to take a year or two off and then try again so he doesn't completely sour on it. Because honestly this "official team photo" pretty much sums up how it ended:

161aIf anything my challenge with my eldest son is that in general he likes/wants to explore and try most everything. I have to resist overscheduling him for sure. He also does swim lessons (mainly for safety purposes, NOT because we have dreams of Phelps-ian glory), gymnastics and karate for a "sport" (and I would think in the next year or two we'll have to choose between these two as they are similar in terms of being a solo physical activity-- though not surprisingly he's super into the different colored belts/stripes he can earn), and music lessons. I've surprised myself by how Tiger Mom-ish I am when it comes to the music. He did a Suzuki sampler class last fall and himself chose (unexpectedly!) the cello after trying violin, flute, guitar, and piano. I need to read some of the Suzuki texts more closely (more to come!) but it is *significantly* more expensive than other activities so I feel like we need to really do it "right." I have mixed feelings about the parent needing to be in the room, which is part of the reason I need to read up more on this. Here he is trying out a new, larger cello for this upcoming year's lessons:

No need to start referring to me as Hilary Chua quite yet though... In the meantime, I get to start all over with my youngest son, Quenton, as he starts exploring the Playing to Win activities, and more!

More Talking, and Writing, about Competition (while being a mom)!

It's been a busy week; and I suspect it will continue to get busier as I prepare for the release of Playing to Win-- or at least I hope so! Before detailing those though, some thoughts on making all this work as a mom: On the day I did the two TV appearances described below, which bookend-ed my work day, I thought I had *finally* figured out how to be a mom, work, be a friend, etc. I did NECN early, dropped off breakfast for a close friend with a new baby where we talked about the "usual" postpartum issues, ran to exercise, and raced home to put Carston down for his nap since I didn't get to do our usual morning routine earlier. During the day I managed to get our garage door repaired and give Carston some extra Mommy kisses while preparing for Greater Boston. After the WGBH appearance I again raced home, and Carston and I headed off to dinner with a friend at the local mall. As I drove there I remember thinking to myself, "What a day! After 15 months this is really clicking!" My  husband was out of town for work and I felt like this was proof I could make all this work. Famous last words, right?! Well, Carston and his friend (who is almost 3) had a great time at P.F.Chang's. They were so cute together mimicking one another-- one would laugh, and vice versa, one would babble something and so would the other. The "problem" with this is that Carston is very into screeching. Can't figure out why this is, or whether or not this means he will be an opera singer, but no matter what we have tried to do, he still screeches like a little screech owl. Of course then, his friend screeched back. While most of the people around us were very understanding, one man in particular, sitting behind me, kept telling me how wrong I was to bring my son out and that this wasn't Chuck E. Cheese. I chose not to engage with him, but I did feel his comments were way out of line given that P.F. Chang's has a children's menu and the Natick Mall is one of the most baby/family-friendly places I have ever seen. I could have let this man put a damper on my day, and he did a bit (so much so that I am writing this), but other people around us were so nice, and as my friend pointed out there are SO many more good people in the world than bad. I ended the day by eating my carryout P.F. Chang's Lo Mein (couldn't eat while dealing with this man and my little screech owl), watching my WGBH appearance, and waking up around 1 am when John got home. All in all though, I still hope we are *finally* figuring all this out, despite people telling me where I should or shouldn't take my Little Man...

Two pieces I wrote related to competition appeared this week. The first is "Competitions Within Competitions: America's insatiable hunger," which is part of my ongoing blog at Psychology Today about children, competition, and popular culture. The piece specifically talks about the rise of even more competition in reality TV shows, where celebrities have teams that compete for the glory of the win on behalf of the team leader as well.

The other piece is about a young man who took competition too far, punching youth soccer coach Ricardo Portillo in the head during a game in Utah. Portillo died from his injuries a week later-- a sad incident that should prompt legal changes to protect sports officials and reflection about what increasing competition is doing to youth. This article, "Youth Soccer Shouldn't Be A Blood Sport" is on WBUR's Cognoscenti blog, a site where I have long desired to see my words appear (and that I got the YES on my birthday was a nice treat).

I've also done both TV and radio recently, talking about competition. In a radio appearance on The Larry Fedoruk Show on NewsTalk 610 out of Canada, I spoke about links between bullying and competition. You can hear that by clicking HERE.

Speaking again and bullying, and links to violence and social media, I appeared on WGBH's Greater Boston with Emily Rooney for a very interesting discussion about boys, terrorism, and violence. It was triggered by the arrest of an 18-year-old high school student, Cameron D'Ambrosio, in the Boston area for making terrorist threats on Facebook, but the discussion went much deeper into youth culture today.

Finally, another discussion about youth culture and competition took place at NECN's The Morning Show about how college graduates can navigate the increasingly competitive labor market after graduation.

This time of year is filed with competitive experiences- both victories and fall-out from losses- and I look forward to thinking, writing, and discussing more about these topics. Thanks for reading and listening/watching!

My Son's First Mitzvah: Why We Banked His Cordblood (Originally appeared on

THIS POST ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON JEWISHBOSTON.COM. CLICK HERE TO READ IT THERE! At my son Carston’s bris I proudly announced that he had already completed his first mitzvah—or at least I hoped he had. IMG_9044

Shortly after he came into this world, Carston gave up some blood—cord blood. He didn’t really have to do anything, but hopefully his donation will help save a life (and we know that to save one life is to save the entire world).

Any expectant mom who reads a baby magazine or signs up for a newborn-related email list has seen the ads for cord-blood banking. For parents with large personal fortunes, private cord-blood banking can seem like good protection against possible misfortune. Given some family’s medical history, private cord-blood banking might even be important. But for most of us, a better investment in our children’s futures is to take the thousands of dollars required for private cord-blood banking and open a college savings account instead.

My husband and I decided against privately banking our son’s cord blood, but I couldn’t stop thinking about cord blood.

For several years, my husband and I have been members of the National Marrow Donor Program. My husband has been matched not once, but twice, to someone in need of a bone-marrow transplant. It’s rare to be matched even once, so I joke that he has “super bone marrow” (though he’s never been called on to actually donate). I thought my son might have some of his dad’s super bone marrow and hoped he could perhaps help someone in need. So my husband and I decided to donate Carston’s cord blood to a public bank.

Because the hospital where I delivered did not collect cord blood, I reached out to the Carolinas Cord Blood Bank, one of four public cord-blood banks. They sent me a kit: a box that I brought with me to the hospital when I went into labor. A family member FedExed everything back to the blood bank the day Carston was born, and two days later we went home, minus the box, but with our bundle of joy.

We’ll never know if Carston’s cord blood helped someone, though of course I hope it has—or will someday. But to me, part of the importance of the act is in not knowing the specific impact. Hopefully my son’s cord-blood donation is but the first mitzvah in the life of a little mensch.


A Covenant for My Son

As he has been brought into the covenant, so may he enter into Torah, huppah, and ma’asim tovim.

I’ve been remiss in my blogging lately as I spent some extra time bonding with Little Man, taking him on his first important outings (i.e. the bookstore, the New England Aquarium, the jewelry store…) and throwing him a bris party.

What’s a bris? The covenant, or bris, is the oldest continuous Jewish rite.  The brit milah is scheduled eight days after birth (as that is when Abraham circumcised Isaac). And, yes, I said circumcised. So the eighth day of life was not so much fun for Little Man-- though, believe me, it was much harder on Mommy. We had a mohel perform the brit milah with only immediate family present at our home so that all of us could really enjoy welcoming Carston into our wonderful community of friends and family a few weeks later.

At his bris party, which essentially was a baby-naming celebration since the actual circumcision had been completed, we highlighted our hopes for Carston Cook Levey Friedman.  His Hebrew name is Shlomo (or Solomon) Chaim. "Shlomo/Solomon" honors John's Uncle Stuart, who passed away in childhood; the name also means peace, and is more commonly associated with wisdom, both things we wish for him and for the world. "Chaim," which means life, connects him to all his Jewish ancestors and to an artistic tradition (think "Fiddler on the Roof" and Chaim Potok).

I was particularly moved when our rabbi discussed the meaning of leaving a chair out for Elijah, who is said to visit every bris in the hopes that this child could be the Messiah. More practically though Elijah's chair symbolizes everyone's great hopes for every child-- who knows, the cure for cancer could lie within our Little Man! My father carried Carston into the room and sat in Elijah's chair.  You can see him in this picture, which also shows me lighting candles.

I like to say that Carston is our child of light since, like most children, he is obsessed with any kind of light (whether electric or sunlight) and naturally turns toward it. As I lit the candles (which John and I bought nearly two years ago during a trip to Israel, having NO idea we would ever use them for this purpose) John's father read the below blessing for a newborn child:

There is a new light in our hearts and in our home.

These candles celebrate the birth of our child.

Out of the creative darkness of the womb he has come.

These candles celebrate his emergence into light.

Blessed is the woman who bears a child, for she knows how love covers pain.

Blessed is the man who fathers a child, for he makes a bridge between earth and heaven.

Child of light, you know not yet the love and joy overflowing from our hearts. 

Believe me, as these pictures capture, love and joy overflow from our hearts whenever we look at him.

As part of the covenant we committed our son to a life of learning, love, and good deeds. I love that these are three of the main pillars of my own life already.

The first part of this statement--learning/Torah-- really resonates with us, as we are book people. Nearly every room in our home is filled with books and our lives are dedicated to knowledge and learning.  Of course, we hope the same for Carston.  To honor this I made up a wee bookmark (for a wee Little Man) as our party favor.

I also ordered a book cake, with a rabbit on it of course (the Friedmans are OBSESSED with rabbits because John had pet rabbits as a child).

This is my new favorite picture, which captures two of my greatest loves-- my son and books.

In addition to learning we hope our son finds love, with whomever he desires, and that that love is recognized by all. Finally, we hope that he serves others and lives a righteous life, committed to justice.  John and I read the following Parents' Prayer to capture these three elements.

We dedicate our child to Torah,

To a never-ending fascination with study and learning

With a book, he will never be alone.

We dedicate our child to huppah,

To never-ending growth as a human being capable of giving and receiving love.

With a loving mate, he will never be alone.

We dedicate our child to maasim tovim,

To a never-ending concern for family and community, justice and charity.

If he cares for others, he will never be alone.

We pray for wisdom to help our child achieve these things.

To fulfill the needs of his mind and body,

To be strong when he needs us to be strong,

To be gentle when he needs us to be gentle,

But always there when he needs us.

The birth of a child is a miracle of renewal.

We stand together this day, contemplating a miracle.

We stood surrounded by the great love of so many friends and family from so many parts of our lives. It was a fascinating group full of neat connections and we all shared in this simcha together.

The Hebrew word for joy is simcha, which is also the word for party. Little Man clearly brings us much joy and gives us a reason to party. As you can see, he is looking forward to even more parties in his future...

* All photographs courtesy of Mark Manne Photography

Everything is Altering

This post was happily featured on Babble on April 18, 2012 as the post I am most proud of us a mom! One week ago I gave birth to our precious son, Carston Cook Levey Friedman. We have been affectionately referring to him as Little Man.

During labor I spent a good amount of time on Facebook and Twitter. It was amazing to feel like so many friends and family were part of the process.

A Twitter friend, Sarah Buttenwieser, sent me a message after he'd arrived, part of which said: "#everythingaltering."

That phrase, "everything altering," kept running like a loop through my head over the next 24 hours. I kept saying to myself, "Everything is altering. Everything is altering." Of course, the link to "altar" and worshiping him and all the promise he holds (as the Midrash says, "With each child the world begins anew") was not lost on me either.

I also kept thinking about the choice of tense. Everything alterED the moment he entered the world. As any mother knows, the moment when that little human life is both forced out of you, by you, and also slips out of you, on his own, is indescribable.  Everything changed in that moment.

And, yet, my husband, John, and I still remained ourselves. Life shattered for a brief moment and was then put back together with so much more love than we knew before. We were fundamentally changed and fundamentally the same all at once.  Case in point: On the day we left the hospital an article about John's research (which I've written a bit about before) appeared on the front page of The New York Times (and check out Nicholas Kristof's column tomorrow, which also discusses this work). He spent the next several hours on the phone with reporters and even doing a live interview from home.  I snuck in half an hour of work on an article I have coming out next Sunday in The Boston Globe Magazine on afterschool math enrichment centers.

So much the same, yet completely different.

Because it is not that everything alterED, but that it is alterING.  Every sigh, sound, thought, movement has a new meaning. And this is a continual process of negotiating new challenges together and renegotiating identities and expectations.

As I take in lots of wonderful advice (one wonderful example written by Rebecca Sullivan, "Pilfer Disposable Hospital Underwear?") and continue to share our evolving journey with loved ones, I look forward to finding out where this altering will take us as individuals, as a family, and as professionals.

This Saturday will capture many of those changes. We'll spend the morning following the US Marathon Trials, since John is a serious runner and running fan.

Then we'll watch the Patriots game (Go, Tom Brady!).

Finally, we'll switch to the Miss America Pageant. This will be the first time in many years that I won't be watching with friends while hosting a pageant party. Carston has been studying up on his favorites though. Once the preliminary competitions end tomorrow night, I plan to post my thoughts and predictions on this year's interesting group of contestants.

In the meantime, we'll be altering away.

ETA: I love that motherhood means entering new conversations and dialogue. Continued thoughts from Standing in the Shadows blog!