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!


Well, it's here. The culmination of years of research, writing, and revising. Everyone can now buy my book at a variety of outlets and in a variety of ways. I even got to celebrate with friends and sociologists in NYC at my official book launch party a few weeks ago (see pictures here). Oh, and this guy. PlayingtoWinBookLaunch001

I've been fortunate that this month, in the weeks leading up to today, that Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, has gotten some great coverage in print (Parents, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, and Canada's National Post) and on the radio (like here, here, and here). I'm continuing to write as well, like this piece that went up today on my Playing to Win blog at Psychology Today: “Should Kids Diversify or Specialize After School?” (Spoiler alert: The answer is both since childhood is a buffet, but you have to get the timing right.) It's even starting to get some reviews, like this one over at orgtheory.

Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks! And I can't WAIT to hear what you think after you read the book, so please comment or send me an email and I promise to respond.


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...)!

Writing, Writing, Writing, and Writing (Talking, too) about Competition

I've been writing so much lately, partly in preparation for the release of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture (have I mentioned you can pre-order it now on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or the University of California Press' website?!), that I decided to do a writing round-up this week. Playing to Win cover on AmazonThese four different pieces give you a sense of different outlets for competition, especially in childhood-- including the athletic field, the classroom, the stage, and the television screen.

1) “Qualities of the B (aka Bench-Warming) Player” at I am very excited that I now have a monthly blog, Playing to Win, at Psychology Today where I will write about the intersections of competition and childhood in America. Stay tuned for topics like the National Spelling Bee and measuring ambition.

2) “It’s College Admissions Decision Time: Are Parents Prepared” at The Huffington Post- It's always interesting to see who you reach when you write at The Huffington Post (and also talking- I've done a few recent video sessions with HuffPost Live as well, like these on the sociological impacts of sperm having an expiration date and how to talk with children about tragedy). This article explores how and why parents should try to raise resilient kids in a competitive world long before they get to high school and deal with college rejection.

3) Oxford Bibliographies entries on Child Beauty Pageants and After-school Hours and Activities in the Childhood Studies volume- I was honored to be recognized as the leading social scientist in these two areas and to write the entry for them. While they both include some of my work (obviously!), they also suggest other areas to explore including books, articles, television shows, and documentaries to help you learn more about these often misunderstood areas of children's lives.

4) “Why ‘Bet on Your Baby’ is Bad for the Babies”  at Kveller- So happy to be back at Kveller writing about some of my favorite topics all in the same piece: reality television, social science, baby experiments, and my son. Watching so much TV not only gets me writing, but also talking, like in this recent article at Fox News about Teen Mom star Farrah Abraham (and another pop culture piece about Beyonce).

Hope you enjoy these pieces and stay tuned for more talk about competition and kids in the coming months!

The Competition-Performance Relation and Dance

When I read Matt Richtel's article, "The Competing Views on Competition," last month in The New York Times I couldn't stop thinking about what one of the chess moms I met told me while I was researching Playing to Win: "Raising kids is a big experiment and I won't know till later if I did it right."  The truth, of course, is that we may never know if we did it "right." One of the main takeaways of Richtel's article about the role of competitiveness in raising healthy children is that there is-- not surprisingly-- a lot of competing (pun intended) advice out there about kids and competition.  As evidence he mentions a meta-analysis that was forthcoming in Psychological Bulletin. 

I recently got my hands on the article, and the two responses to it, and was struck by two brief excerpts.  The first is from the main article, "The Competition-Performance Relation: A Meta-Analytic Review and Test of the Opposing Processes Model of Competition and Performance."  Don't let the long title scare you, because here is the main find: "The take home message from the present research is that at the level of individual psychological processes, competition appears to be neither entirely beneficial nor entirely detrimental to performance.  Rather, our work indicates that the competition-performance relation varies as a function of the type of achievement goals pursued."  This also means that it can vary for the same person in different situations.  It's not realistic to turn away from all forms of competition because, as some critics explain in a response, "Competition is pervasive and an important aspect of human life.  Many people every day are involved in mandatory competitions in educational and career settings whether they want to be or not."

One setting in which competition is a fact of life is the dance world, which I've written about before as competitive dance is one of the featured activities in Playing to Win.  Dancers are constantly ranked in class and in roles for productions and in formal competitions.  Those formal competitions have become even more public as of late.  Recently my DVR has been filled with shows featuring dance competitions-- some of them healthier than others.  Below are my thoughts on some of these shows.

1) Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition- While So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars started the competitive reality show craze over dance, Dance Moms started the candid reality show craze.  But the teacher featured in Dance Moms, Abby Lee Miller,obviously had to get in on the competitive reality show market too. So Lifetime came up with this (also featuring Robin Antin of Pussycat Dolls fame, who has her own family history with reality shows, and Richy Jackson, known to many for his association with Lady Gaga and Laurie Ann Gibson). This show is pretty bad-- and the viewers seem to agree as the show earns significantly worse ratings than Dance Moms. The show isn't just about the kids' dancing, it's about whose mom creates more drama and makes better TV.  In this case the competition is more about character than talent.

2) Down South Dance- This one-hour TLC special featured two rival clogging teams.  Clogging is a cross between Irish dancing and tap and involves lots of group precision and rhythm.  The show-- which seemed like a pilot for a possible series-- is in the vein of other TLC shows, setting up dramatic rivalries among big personalities in a relatively obscure activity.  Of course, this being TLC,  injuries, momma drama, and poaching were all plot lines.  In any event the competition here is definitely between teams.

3) The Big Jig- This one-hour TLC special featured five American girls competing in the 2012 Irish Dancing "Worlds."  At this point I'm guessing that each year we can expect a one-hour TLC special about the Irish Dancing World Championships given that TLC showed the 2010 competition by showing Jig (the careful viewer will notice Julia O'Rourke is featured in both), then the 2011 championships shown over the summer in Strictly Irish Dancing.  This special got quite the Toddlers & Tiaras treatment, following the exact same format (seeing the girls train at home a week before the competition, interviews with the moms and girls, seeing them at the event, setting up some other drama for the cameras, etc.).  In addition to the formula there are some child pageant-like elements included the curled wigs, the heavy make-up, and the sequined dresses that can cost thousands.  Now, based on what they showed, seems like some of the Irish dancers might drink pageant go-go juice too. How do we know? Well, they did show one girl become sick on stage (*multiple* times, which wasn't really necessary, I might add)-- and her vomit was bright pink.  Too many pixie sticks?

In any case, the competition shown here is more like what we would expect and each girl handles her own victories and losses in her own way.  I loved 10-year-old Grace who was thrilled to come in 9th, only to find out that due to a computer glitch she came in 13th. She said she was sad, but then she "Grace-ified it," and felt better. None of the featured girls won, and while tears were shed, in general they genuinely did seem focused on their own performance goals and less on the top spot.  I suppose when you train all year for 2-3 minutes of dancing you have to keep perspective.

One other show I'd like to mention that I recently LOVED is PBS' Broadway or Bust.  While dance is a small component of this high school musical theater competition, the main focus is singing.  In any case, this three-part series on the week-long competition is fascinating and fun to watch.  I especially loved that the kids genuinely seemed amazed by one another's talent.  While there was only one male and one female "Jimmy" winner, all of them seemed to gain so much for the experience itself that it felt less like a competition.  As the judges explained every day is an audition if they want to be professional performers, so they have to learn how to be friends now.  made me anxious for Smash to come back.  Along with my other new favorite dance shows, Breaking Pointe and Bunheads.  And would you believe I still haven't seen First Position?! Can't wait for the DVD to come out!

I'm guessing most of the winners' parents worry less about whether their parenting decisions were the right ones... Then again, the truth is, we all worry. And we always will. Some kids thrive in competitive situations and the trick is figuring out if your child is one and what the best competitive outlet is for him or her.