Developing the All-Around Child (from

I was honored to participate in an "online roundtable" panel of experts over at Boston Magazine related to overparenting.  The question I was asked to answer, along with four experts in psychology and social work, was "Are We Overparenting Our Kids?" This roundtable was tied to a feature story written by Katheine Ozment called "Welcome to the Age of Overparenting."  (Note that I was especially thrilled to have a seat at the virtual table with Jerome Kagan, who I met as an undergraduate when I received a fellowship in his name/honor to support research related to childhood.) At the annual College Board conference this fall, the dean of admissions at Harvard, William Fitzsimmons, revived some parental panic. According to The New York Times, he told an assembled crowd that successful Harvard applicants are “good all-rounders — academically, extracurricularly, and personally.”

This wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last, that gatekeepers like Fitzsimmons induce hand-ringing, acid reflux, and sleepless nights among credentials-concerned parents — even if their children are still in elementary school. In the fall of 2008, Fitzsimmons similarly set off alarm bells in affluent suburbs around Boston when he was quoted in The Boston Globe, saying, “Even fifth-graders in Wellesley, Newton, and Brookline, who as adults will face international competition for jobs, should begin beefing up their academic résumés if they want a shot at an Ivy League education.”

It’s clear that for millions of upper-middle and middle-class American children today, waiting until high school to prove one’s mettle would be a mistake. The college admissions race requires far more advanced preparation, orchestrated and monitored by involved parents who ferry their scheduled kids from school to music lessons to sports practice to private tutoring to home, repeating the cycle day after day.

Of course, it is tempting to denounce these preoccupations as the hyper-fixation of neurotic parents who are living through their children. (See: Controversy, Tiger Mom, Amy Chua) But are these parents crazy?

No. (Though at times they may exhibit questionable behavior …)

Their children face very real bottlenecks through which they need to pass if they are going to achieve in ways similar to their parents. And the probability of that outcome appears to be less than it once was.

Media coverage of recent low college acceptance rates only fuels parents’ anxiety, reinforcing the competitive culture, even among the preschool set. This is partly because of the 15 year-long rise in the number of high school graduates — which is peaking right now at around 2.9 million. And it’s not just that there are more students, but also that more of them are applying to particular schools. Last year Harvard saw a 6.2 percent acceptance rate, with almost 35,000 applicants.

Based on my research of families with elementary school-age children who participate in competitive chess, dance, and soccer, it would be a mistake to think that parents fixate on college admissions every Saturday afternoon. Instead, they understand the grooming of their child as producing a certain kind of character and a track record of success that is valued during the long march toward the pursuit of advanced degrees, like JDs, MDs, MBAs, and PhDs. But were parents to think in directly instrumental terms about that thick admissions envelope, they would not be far off the mark: activity participation, particularly athletics, can confer an admissions advantage, either through athletic scholarships or an admissions “boost.”

That U.S. colleges and universities consider admissions categories other than academic merit is rooted in history and is uniquely American; I argue that it is part of the reason that highly competitive and organized afterschool activities are more common here. Jerome Karabel in The Chosen shows how the “Big Three” of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, developed new admissions criteria in the 1920s to keep out “undesirables,” like Jews and immigrants. This new system valued the “all-around man,” who was naturally involved in extracurricular clubs and athletics.

Middle- and upper-middle class parents today understand the importance of this “all-around (wo)man,” and consequently may seem to overparent their young kids to get them on the right track. But given the history of college admissions in this country, and current state of affairs, can you blame them?


Racing to the Ivies

A lot happened in the world over the weekend-- from the Royal Wedding to the White House Correspondents' Dinner to, of course, the death of Osama Bin Laden.  May 1, 2011 was definitely an historic day.

Today I write about a much smaller corner of the world, and an event that also occurred over the weekend-- the Penn Relays. The Penn Relays is the oldest track and field competition in the US, beginning in 1895. I must confess that I know about the Penn Relays from a 1986 episode of The Cosby Show, when Heathcliff Huxtable ran on a relay team.  Like many children of the '80s I would have loved to have been part of the Huxtbale family, so I thought I would share a clip from that episode, "Off to the Races."

On Friday The New York Times ran a very interesting article on Princeton's record-setting 4x400 relay team in advance of the Penn Relays.  The team, which did not win over the weekend at the Penn Relays (though Princeton's 4xMile team did win), is made up of four very different young men.  All have different backgrounds, academic interests, and extracurricular pursuits.  What is so impressive is that these young men are Princeton students, top athletes, and they do other things around campus-- like being part of a hip-hop dance group, singing in an a cappella group, and playing the trombone.

These extraordinary young men seem almost ordinary on an Ivy campus like Princeton's.  Their pattern of involvement and success is exactly what admissions officers look for while sifting through thousands of application. In my research on afterschool activities and their links to elite college admissions I have spoken with admissions officers on why participation in extracurricular activities is so important.

Ivies are looking for smart students with a great deal of ambition. But it’s awfully hard to measure ambition. Participation in activities—and especially awards and leadership earned through participation—are a proxy for that ambition. The specific activities are less important; what matters is that you play a sport or seriously participate in anther activity like debate or drama. But you should also do something else, like play an instrument or be part of a Model United Nations team or volunteer or compete in dance competitions. Because what Ivies, and schools like them, are looking for are ambitious individuals who aren’t afraid to take risks.  Princeton's anchor, Austin Holliman, is a great example: Not only is he a top sprinter and hurdler, he also is a high-level trombonist (so good, in fact, he almost went to Julliard for college).

When freshmen get to campus they will be exposed to new activities and academic disciplines. Princeton, and schools like it, wants to create a campus full of ambitious kids who are willing to try swimming or journalism or glee club or anthropology for the first time. So you can’t just do one thing in high school, you need to show you are flexible and versatile. Of course, you’re still ultimately expected to excel in whatever you try, but you must first be willing to try.  Freshman Tom Hopkins, who runs the third leg of the relay, has been in an a cappella group his first year at Princeton, a great example of someone jumping into campus life and trying multiple things.

Being ambitious, versatile, and taking risks are traits that many also think of as being American, part of our nation’s DNA. A former president of the American Psychological Association said that America is “a success-oriented society whose attitudes toward achievement can be traced to our Protestant heritage with its emphasis on individualism and the work ethic.” When Alexis de Tocqueville toured the US in the mid-nineteenth century he famously wrote about the participatory nature of Americans, declaring that we are a nation of joiners.  When another European, the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, toured the US he was also struck by the degree of involvement of Americans—specifically American parents. Piaget was shocked by how many parents asked him whether it was possible to speed up children’s development.  He named this concern “The American Question,” because he said Americans are always trying to hurry things along.

Today that “American Question” symbolizes not just ambition and involvement, it also symbolizes competition. Americans love competitions and reward winners. General George Patton declared, “When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, big league ball players, the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time."  This seems a particularly relevant quote and sentiment today.

HuffPo Piece: Cinderella Ate My Man-Eating Tiger Daughter

This originally appeared on The Huffington Post on April 1, 2011. Note that the same day my piece was posted, news broke that Amy Chua's eldest daughter, Sophia, was admitted to the Harvard class of '15 (during the most competitive admissions cycle in Harvard's history, with a 6.2% admit rate); Sophia will be matriculating in Cambridge this fall.

Looking for advice on how to raise a successful daughter? Recent bestsellers offer conflicting advice. In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein trumpets Girl Power over pink princesses if you want a smart, independent woman. But Kay Hymowitz writes in Manning Up that you should poo-poo this New Girl Order -- at least if you want your daughter to be a wife and (working) mother someday. And then there's the now infamous Tiger Mother Amy Chua who painstakingly details how she "Chinese parents" her two daughters to be the best at everything they touch in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother; her girls tend to trounce everyone (girls and boys) while wearing princess-style dresses.

Chua recently spoke at Harvard (otherwise known as mecca for Tiger Moms), where she proclaimed, "I could not in a million years imagine my book to be perceived this way, as preaching Chinese parenting as superior... This is not a parenting book. It is a memoir." Indeed Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother covers Chua's childhood and family life, and describes how her relationship with members of her family changed while raising her over-achieving Chinese-Jewish-American children. These humanizing details are interspersed between the more horrifying anecdotes -- well known, thanks to the excerpt printed in The Wall Street Journal -- about denial of dinners and sleepovers, and threats to burn stuffed animals and give toys away.

As Chua was excoriated in the media, Orenstein's own parenting book-cum-memoir appeared. Cinderella Ate My Daughter is a spirited journey through the princess-industrial complex created by Disney and fed by American Girl, Club Libby Lu, other toy companies, child beauty pageants, and many more. Orenstein, a journalist who specializes in women's and girls' issues, details how this pink culture developed historically and how it impacts girls today at younger ages than ever before--including her own daughter, Daisy.

In many ways Chua and Orenstein's families and concerns are similar. They both have daughters. In fact, they both are raising Asian/Jewish daughters. They both find something wrong with current American parenting techniques, especially when it comes to raising their girls. But Peggy Orenstein is revered and Amy Chua is reviled, and when you read the books you can see why. As unyielding as Chua is (even when conceding defeat), Orenstein is questioning -- a crucial difference between the two books. Orenstein is also humorous. Chua claims she was trying to be a funny writer, but any self-deprecating humor just doesn't come across as genuine, especially when she repeatedly lists the accolades of her various family members. In the end, Orenstein is just more admirably ambivalent, honest, and likeable about mothering a young girl today.

Click HERE to keep reading!

Preschool Olympians and Ivy Leaguers?

Two extreme parenting stories are making the rounds this week (yes, even in the midst of the horrific, and ongoing, tragedy in Japan). I see them as part of the same trend-- what do you think?

1) Yesterday The New York Daily News ran a story with the attention-getting headline: "Manhattan mom sues $19k/yr. preschool for damaging 4-year-old daughter's Ivy league chances."  The short version of the story is that mother Nicole Imprescia is suing York Avenue Preschool for not properly preparing her daughter for the ERB exam-- needed for private school admissions in New York City-- and for having two-, three-, and four-year-olds sharing the same learning space.

The article has some great quotes like, "The court papers implied the school could have damaged Lucia's chances of getting into a top college, citing an article that identifies preschools as the first step to 'the Ivy League.'" While I hate to place blame, especially on parents, I'm pretty sure Ms. Imprescia is damaging her daughter's Ivy chances far more than York Avenue Preschool ever could.  I fear Ms. Imprescia would make Tiger Mom Amy Chua look positively domesticated.

My favorite quote is the following: "Fortunately, Imprescia's lawyer said, the tot's prospects aren't doomed. 'Lucia Imprescia, for the record, will get into an Ivy League school - York Avenue Preschool notwithstanding,' said Paulose, of the firm Koehler & Isaacs. 'The child is very smart and will do well in life.'" As if getting into an Ivy League school is the only way to do well in life?! On top of that, there is no way to know if fourteen years from now little Lucia will be in a position to apply to the eight schools that make up the Ivy League... But I'm glad this lawyer can guarantee her future.

Since I read this article yesterday it has been picked up by MSNBC, so expect to be hearing more on this case.

2) MSNBC ran another attention-getting parenting story-- this one about genetic testing to determine if children have genes that predispose them to particular athletic careers. I first read about these services several years ago in Tom Farrey's wonderful book Game OnSince Farrey's coverage, as the MSNC article shows, the tests have become more sophisticated, and more US-centric.  With a simple cheek swab and swipe of the credit card, parents can know if their child is predisposed to being a sprinter or marathoner.

One father is quoted in the article explaining his ten-year-old soccer-playing daughter's response to their discussion about the testing: "She told me, 'Well, Daddy, I just have to try harder'" if the results came back negative, Marston said." The article goes on, "But even at age 10, [Elizabeth] knows it will take more than genes to reach her goal of playing in the Olympics."

Of course, simply having a form of a gene is no guarantee of future success, which is why pediatricians, like Drs. Alison Brooks and Beth Tarini writing this month in JAMA, are opposed to these types of at-home testing kits.  Children should neither be forced into a particular sport because of a genetic predisposition, nor should they be directed away from a particular activity.

What's the connection between preschool lawsuits and genetic testing for child athletes? 

More than anything both stories illustrate the extreme parental anxiety that exists today, especially in upper-middle class communities. My research on competitive afterschool activities shows how parents connect elementary school performance to preparation for the college admissions process. Ms. Imprescia's focus on the Ivy League isn't extraordinary today-- what is extraordinary is her willingness to sue because of her assumption/entitlement/fervent desire for Lucia to end up at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, or Penn.  High performance in athletics is a "way in" to these schools, and a way to earn scholarships at others, so the Marston family is also on to something.

But both stories also show parents hyper-focusing on extremely unrealistic goals for children. The likelihood of getting into Harvard, for example, is around 6% this year. Getting an NCAA scholarship? Lower. The Olympics? Lower still. You get the idea.  Setting up highly unlikely, and perhaps unrealistic, goals for children from a young age can be damaging. It can skew children's thoughts on success, and hence happiness. The reality is that even with talent and hard work luck plays a huge part in securing an Ivy League spot (speaking from experience here), getting a college athletic scholarship, or nabbing a gold medal at the Olympics in 2024.

Perhaps Ms. Imprescia has already sent away for her own genetic testing kit for little Lucia? In any event, let's hope she's also set up a therapy fund along with the college fund.

Childhood is a Buffet

I love a good Sunday brunch buffet. I often sample lots of dishes, and then go back to get a larger serving of my favorite.

When people ask me about afterschool activities for their elementary school-age kids-- how many they should be in, which activity will help them get into college someday, etc.-- I explain that they should approach those afterschool hours the same way they approach that Sunday buffet.  Children should sample a lot of different things so that they can figure out their favorites.

Middle childhood, which is the time between ages 6-12 (or, for a rough equivalent, the elementary school years), is the time for exposure and exploration.  Parents make choices about which activities their kids should explore based on their own experiences and preferences.  Maybe mom played the violin, so she wants her daughter to as well; or, perhaps she never played a musical instrument and that's the reason she's so adamant that her kids learn to play music.  Other families emphasize physical fitness, so participation on an athletic team is very important.  Within those categories of music and sports there are more choices. A child can play a string instrument, or the piano, drums, recorder, or clarinet, and the list goes on.  Athletics is even more complex-- will a child play a team sport or an individual one? Will it be a popular sport, like soccer or tennis, or a more rarefied one, like lacrosse or squash?

Of course, this isn't an either/or enterprise. Many kids play sports and a musical instrument and do something else (like drawing, Mandarin lessons, theater, or chess, and again the list goes on). One mom evocatively described her parenting strategy to me by saying she is striving to raise "little Renaissance men." But not all boys will grow up to be Renaissance men and not all kids are destined to be "well-rounded."  While these are worthwhile goals, parents must also listen to their children.

Kids are an integral part of this process. In some cases, children will approach their parents with an activity that they would like to try out. Perhaps a friend at school is a skateboarder, or a girl saw Nastia Liukin win the gold in the Olympics and she wants to try to be a gymnast. If a child expresses interest in a particular activity it's a good idea to explore a class in that, or something very similar (perhaps biking if you don't like skateboarding, or dance or cheerleading if you don't like gymnastics).  Other times, like when an activity is parent-driven and a child wants out, or even wants more of it, parents should listen to their child's desires, especially before investments of time and money get too high.  What's important is that kids are exposed to a wide range of options when they are young so they can explore, be creative, and start to gain mastery.  This helps insure that kids will be intrinsically motivated and hopefully develop a genuine interest and passion in a given area.

Of course, what parents choose to expose their kids to is ultimately shaped by a variety of individual and societal factors.  To continue the buffet metaphor, not everyone will have grits or lox on their Sunday buffet, but most people will have eggs and bacon (some will have it free-range and organic, and others won't). For example, in certain parts of the country ice hockey is more popular, and in others Pop Warner football dominates.  On top of regional preferences parental background matters. More educated parents may shy away from activities they consider dangerous, like boxing, and instead push weekend math classes.  And parents of boys and girls tend to favor different sorts of activities, even within the same family.

There is no right way or wrong way to make these choices so long as you listen to your child and your own common sense.  There is no magic number of activities or number of hours of participation that will help your little one get into an Ivy League school ten years down the road.  There is no equation that tells us whether or not your child will rebel later in life is he or she goes to ballet instead of karate.  But there is a way to keep childhood fun, and full of creativity and exploration, while still training kids for the next steps in their lives. By allowing kids to explore within a structured set of choices, they'll be able to know what they really love as they move into middle school and high school, where those specific choices start to matter more. Until then, enjoy your waffles, pancakes, hash browns, Eggs Benedict, or whatever else you and your kids prefer!