America's new child genius

I loved the cover story of the January 24th issue of The Economist so much I even took notes. "America's new aristocracy: Education and the inheritance of privilege" is spot on in so many ways. Economist cover, America's new aristocracyAs the leader says, "Today's rich increasingly pass on to their children an asset that cannot be frittered away in a few nights at a casino. It is more useful than wealth, and invulnerable to inheritance tax. It is brains." My children are certainly the beneficiaries (well, I hope) of this assortative mating. But I appreciated that the article also explains that it's not just that these children of the wealthier are resting on their laurels: "Compared to those of days past it is by and large more talented, better schooled, harder working (and more fabulously renumerated) and more diligent in its parental duties. It is not a place where one easily gets by on birth or connections alone. At the same time it is widely seen as increasingly hard to get into." Kids work hard to deserve their inherited status in the meritoracy, but that doesn't make it any easier to get into. Of course, as I know from my PLAYING TO WIN research, it's not not schooling but also after-schooling that matters. And these days it's not just a meritocracy but also a testocracy.

Enter another American spin on a British import: Child Genius. This new Lifetime competitive reality show features 15 kids and their families as they compete to win $100,000 and the title of "child genius." The show manages to combine pint-sized stars with big brains and often big personalities with some compelling (and appalling) parents, along with some smart expert commentary. The two factual competitions each week (which mainly rely on a child's ability to memorize in categories like American presidents, zoology, vocabulary, etc. but also math and logic & reasoning) are inherently edge-of-your-seat watching. The good editing adds another dimension, as does the unabashed goal of winning that often outstrips any concern about cameras.

Obviously most of these kids are the progeny of smart parents; one girl, eliminated in the first week, reveals her IQ is higher than her father's already high number. The show is a rainbow ethnically and racially, and not surprisingly many of the kids are children of immigrants to the US (research on immigration in the US has shown that immigrants who make it here were already at the top in their birth countries so this is not surprising at all). But there is one big exception, Graham, whose family is a bit in awe of the intellect they produced in their small Midwestern town. Intensely religious Graham feels compelled to state he doesn't believe in the Big Bang before dominating the astronomy round (you could see the former NASA astronaut moderator shudder a bit). Graham is one of the reasons reality TV shows continue to thrive, as are Ryan and his domineering parents... especially his mom who hisses all the time she isn't a Tiger mom.

It is so clear that the more social kids who seem to have something more like a "normal" life-- regular school, peers their age, siblings-- are the happiest and most well-adjusted. The family dynamic is so significant here it is hard to overstate. You can see how some parents enjoy their kids (even when one girl reveals she got her brains from her dad, and then proceeds to correct her parents when they say she "self-taught herself" because what they said was redundant), support them, and try to raise them up as good human beings, while others see them as instruments to success. The goal is winning no matter the goal or cost. I can only imagine how crazy it is making some of them that Graham is excelling with so little practice and devotion (speaking of, I wonder if Graham has ever done, or will do, memory contests reciting Bible verses as it seems right up his alley).

In addition to my other interests I am fascinated that so many of these kids rely on a luck trope to explain their success in a phase of the competition, declaring they "got lucky" when they got first in a round or got a perfect score. Only once, thus far, has a negative luck trope been used when one boy got eliminated and his mom felt it was unfair (it wasn't, he gave the wrong answer, for the record, her name is SANDRA Day O'Connor). Of course luck does have to do with it for these kids, as they got lucky to be born into the families they did, per The Economist, but they also work unbelievably hard, studying every day and working to learn more almost every minute of every day. I'm curious to see how this ends and what becomes of these kids in the future. I suspect I will see more than a few in the Spelling or Geography Bees in the next few years (one contestant I recognized from lats year's Bee!), and then who knows...

But I'm sure even they would ask, as I did, why The Economist chose to feature Yale and not one of my alma maters, Princeton or Harvard?! ;)

Tiger Teachers: The New Stage Moms Aren't the Moms (from Huffington Post Culture)

This originally appeared in The Huffington Post's Culture Section. Write a bad mommy confessional and be rewarded with multiple weeks on bestseller lists, riches, and fame/infamy. (See: Chua, Amy [Tiger Mom]; Druckerman, Pamela [American mom, French parenting]; Weiss, Dara-Lynn [Diet Devil in Vogue]).

And then there are the television shows. In the grand tradition of stage mothers we have the women of Toddlers & Tiaras, along with Dance Moms and Dance Moms: Miami. Is it any surprise that Skating Moms is in the works? And that the mothers on these shows are getting wackier and wackier to secure appearances on TMZ and Anderson Cooper in order to claim their 15 minutes of fame? Or, better yet, the holy grail -- their own television shows (like two Toddlers & Tiaras break-out stars: Eden Wood with her Logo network show Eden's World and Alana Thompson, aka "Honey Boo Boo Child," who has just inked a deal for a family reality show on TLC)!

Despite their extreme antics at this point it's a total cliché to criticize these moms. The people who really should make us scratch our heads are the other adults involved: the teachers and coaches.

Now, Abby Lee Miller, the larger-than-life teacher of Dance Moms, helps give female coaches a bad name. While she has surely amplified some of her behavior for the cameras you still can't help but wince as she verbally berates young girls, puts them in completely age-inappropriate attire, and shows them how to "paint on" a six-pack so they look more slender on stage.

Miller's actions have impacted other teachers and coaches. Prominent, successful, competitive dance teachers are appalled by her behavior. In addition to being embarrassed by a member of their own profession, they have seen changes in their enrollments and in their students' behavior, along with that of the children's moms. Let's just say that drama and raised voices seem to be becoming normalized.

While Abby Lee Miller isn't the first teacher or coach to over-invest in her students (watch the US gymnastics championships this weekend to catch a glimpse of coaching legends like the Károlyis -- and then read Dominique Moceanu's new memoir, out next week, to discover what a negative impact coaches like that can have on a child's life), Miller certainly is popularizing the role. In many ways she's the new version of a "stage mom."


The most recent episode of Dance Moms, "The Battle Begins," has Abby shouting multiple times that her students need to do well because they are associated with her and "her name." With kids' afterschool activities becoming increasingly professionalized, more and more people (both good and bad) can make a living off of children's performances. This means they can easily become too invested both financially and emotionally.

So in many cases teachers and coaches are the new "stage moms," using kids who aren't their own to secure their own fame and fortune. Forget the Tiger Mom, now we have Tiger Teachers eager to catch the glare of the spotlight. Too bad we can't all get a Coach Taylor for ourselves and for our kids. In the meantime, beware of Tiger Teachers seeking high fees and reality television shows.

Pretty Parenting in the Press: Last week's media appearances

Last week, in between two month vaccines (I may have cried more than he did!) and StrollFit classes to try to lose that baby weight, I was busy talking about a few different strands of my research. 1) I appeared on NECN's The Morning Show to talk about a new, disturbing trend: T(w)een girls posting YouTube videos of themselves (along with pictures, sometimes in various stages of undress) asking if they are pretty or not. Some of the comments are particularly upsetting, if you dare to look (for example, here and here).

I look better 9 weeks postpartum than I did at 9 months, but I still have a long way to go before I look like Beyonce. Then again, I don't have any of the resources (time OR money!) to exercise four hours a day. And, given, the content of this story I don't think it's very healthy for me to stress about this too much-- so long as Carston is healthy and happy! Speaking of the Little Man, he seemed to enjoy seeing me on TV (and, no, don't worry we don't really let him watch television yet...)

If you truly want to be disturbed by another young girl sexualizing herself on YouTube (apparently with the approval and encouragement of her mother), check out this story on 15-year-old "living" doll Venus Palermo, with quotes from yours truly on the matter.

2) Of course it's not just t(w)een girls who worry about their looks. Thanks to child beauty pageants, girls as young as six weeks can start to fuss over their appearances. But one French senator hopes that won't be the case for French girls; Chantal Jouanno has a proposal to ban child beauty pageants in France (among other things). Here's a French article on the subject that quotes me (extra points if you can translate my quotes!). I'll share some other French media, and my thoughts on this legislation later next week.

3) The parenting scandal of 2011, featuring Tiger Mom Amy Chua, continues to have legs. A group of teenage girls from Indianapolis interviewed me for this article that they wrote in The Indianapolis Star (they are part of a very interesting program for aspiring journalists called Y-Press).  If you're interested in more of my thoughts on the Tiger Mom, check out my USA Today column, Contexts article, and book review in The Huffington Post.

4) On a parenting note, I was quoted in an article on how to ask for help with your newborn ("How to get help with your newborn: New mom survival tips." Michelle Maffei. March 11, 2012). I swear, I can't say enough about a truly knowledgeable baby nurse, like Kathy Todd-Seymour's Mother & Child. If you value sleep, and no inter-generational parenting arguments, it's worth it! Plus, it may help you return to work productivity (such as it is, especially if you are nursing) even sooner.

Have a great week, everyone!

UPDATED! What happens when you are first-time parents who study competition and education?

ETA: On January 4th, 2012 we welcomed our son, Carston, into the world. Two days later, his daddy's research on value-added teachers appeared on the front page of The New York Times. Coincidence?! Everyone is doing well and no one has been fired yet! I was correct (per original post below) that this work would get a lot of attention. What do you think? My husband, John Friedman, and I are expecting our first child in about three weeks.  Both of us have spent parts of our careers studying education, childhood, and competition in various forms.  I can't decide if this is going to be good for our offspring, or a total disaster...

John, and several colleagues (including Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hilger, Emmanuel Saez, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, and Danny Yagan), recently published the lead paper in The Quarterly Journal of Economics: "How Does Your Kindergarten Classroom Affect Your Earnings? Evidence from Project Star." (If you would like to read a full version of the manuscript, click here.)  In the paper they find evidence that your kindergarten classroom has significant, longitudinal effects on your life, using data from students who were part of Project STAR, a Tennessee program in the early 80s that randomized children into kindergarten classrooms.  These effects include higher earnings, college attendance, home ownership, and retirement savings.  I guess Robert Fulghum was right that all you really need to know you learned in kindergarten. Can you imagine the kinds of questions we are going to ask before enrolling our child in a kindergarten?!

Currently John is working on another paper (again, with Raj Chetty, and also with Jonah Rockoff), that will surely get a lot of attention as it focuses on the long-term impacts of teachers-- not just kindergarten teachers.  To oversimplify things, teachers who improve students' standardized test scores also improve adult earnings.  A one standard deviation increase in test score raises earnings by about 10% of your yearly salary per year. Really interesting stuff, but I can't imagine the kinds of questions John is going to ask at school open houses and parent-teacher conferences!

As for me, if you read this blog you know that I study kids and competition and various afterschool activities.  So can you imagine the kinds of questions I am going to ask sports coaches, music teachers, etc.?  Since I also write about how these issues often intersect with schooling and college admissions I know how important early education can be.  Recently I checked out websites of some schools around our house to see about tuition and admissions requirements for pre-K, if we go the private school route. Now, if I lived in some cities (oh, like one Big City a couple hundred miles south of Boston), I would be quite behind if I hadn't already been reading up on the options and gotten myself on mailing lists.  Despite being one of the great intellectual centers of the world, Boston isn't quite as intense as this other Big City.  Nonetheless, I started filling out an online form to request more information on a particular school, figuring I have some downtime to read up on places.  When I got to the section on child's info (like name, grade interested in, birth date, etc.), I suddenly realized that putting my due date in as an upcoming birthday would likely not be looked upon kindly by the Brahmin elite!  I wouldn't want to flag myself as a Tiger Mom before I'm even officially a mom... especially because I'm not quite sure I will be a Tiger Mom, preferring more of a "buffet" approach to early childhood parenting.

What do you think: son lucky to have parents who study these issues, or destined for a lifetime of therapy? Personally, I hope for something in between, so if you have any suggestions, feel free to pass them on!

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?