Pink Warrior Boy?

Today I faced one of my first true parenting dilemmas-- and one of the first times my partner and I have disagreed on a decision. I signed my eldest son, Carston, up for town soccer where he will play on a U4 team. He needs cleats and shin guards for the first time so we headed to a sporting goods store to get him sized and outfitted.

After relaying Carston's street shoe size the salesman found the corresponding box of Umbro cleats to try on. That box happened to hold hot pink cleats. Which happened to fit.


Now you may recall Carston's favorite color has long been purple. He has recently expanded his "favorite" palette so that he ranks his fave colors in the following manner: "purple, pink, and blue." So after these shoes fit and Mr. Eddy of Dick's went to get him neon green shoes in the same size, Carston obviously said he wanted the pink ones. I hesitated for a second, but privately thought the neon green option was pretty heinous, so decided the pink ones were fine.

Next up were shin guards. This time Mr. Eddy used the standard black-sock covered ones for size. After finding a set that worked we thought we were done. But Carston then pointed out he could get those in hot pink as well to "match." For some reason, this suddenly struck me as a lot of hot pink.

Look, I am very open on this, but even I have my limits. Why? I've suddenly started worrying that all those pink and purple might lead to some teasing. In many ways Carston is even more "boy" than he was a year ago. Just walk into our house to see superhero detritus of shields, swords, and other fighting gear all over...


When he asked for purple shoes for back-to-school, and specifically to wear them on his first day of his new school this week (where one of the school colors is purple), I was fine with it and even crossed to the girls' shoes at Stride Rite to make that happen. But when he then wanted "sparkly pink and purple shoes" I drew my own line. Why? That teasing worry. It wasn't aesthetic, because I know if he were a girl I would have gotten the sparkly ones.

But a new neighbor was there at Dick's (who has sons and a daughter) and she commented that times have changed and it's ok, so we went with the Pepto Bismal-pink shin guards and socks. Of course, we even got the purple ball.


As we were walking back to the car Carston commented, "Mommy, I'm glad you brought me because Daddy wouldn't have let me get the pink stuff." Well, that's when I started to get worried...

Sure enough when we got home Carston proudly showed off his new gear. Once he was up in his room my husband then informed me that he would have just said that the pink ones weren't an option for his team. But I have this policy about not fibbing to my kids so that wouldn't fly with me.

The thing is that just as we don't want girls to think looking pretty is their thing and not being a computer scientist isn't, I don't want boys to think pink can't be their thing and being a car mechanic automatically is their domain. But when I coined the term "pink warrior girls" specifically about youth soccer players who happen to be girls, I didn't see a good male analogue.

Can Carston and other boys growing up today fight with pink and purple swords? It seems that things, even in soccer, are moving in that direction. I hope that if someone does comment on his pink shoes he can simply say, "Pink isn't just for girls, nothing is just for girls or just for boys." Or, I'll have to inform him that apparently a lot of male professional players now wear pink cleats, among other function options, per the paper of record.  [And who knew black cleats used to be made out of KANGAROO leather?! Learn something new every day.]

This seemed to assuage my partner, though I might just have to exchange  those pink shin guards for reasons solely related to TOO MUCH pink. If my parenting philosophy is captured by the phrase, "everything in moderation," then I think pink cleats and a purple/pink ball is quite enough, no?

How would you handle this situation, or how have you handled it?


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...)!

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!

How will the Olympics inspire girls? (from the Gates Cambridge blog, a program that has inspired me)

This blog originally appeared on the Gates Cambridge blog, A Transformative Experience, on July 29, 2012. I was a Gates Cambridge scholar at the University of Cambridge from 2002-2003. It truly was one of the most transformative experiences of my life from a personal and professional point of view. For many years after my time in the UK I was honored and humbled to serve the Gates Cambridge community in different ways (as a member, and later as a co-chair, of the Alumni Association and as a member of the selection committee for US Scholars). Unlike many other fellowships the Gates Cambridge is very inclusive (citizens of every country except the UK can apply, no age limits, no institutional endorsement needed, any graduate degree Cambridge offers eligible, etc.) and scholars go on to pursue different types of research and professions, as the blog suggests. In some ways the Gates Cambridge spirit is similar to the Olympic spirit with its international style, emphasis on achievement, and attraction for those striving to make the world a better place.

The London Olympics are upon us and they are shaping up to be quite extraordinary from the standpoint of advancing women’s athletics.  For instance this will be the first Olympic Games in which every Olympic nation is represented by a female competitor; it’s also the first time that women will compete in every Olympic sport.

As a cultural sociologist and writer who focuses on childhood and athletics among other topics, I believe in the power of sport to effect social change.  I also know that sports are a way to shape the next generation by teaching children lessons about competition and life.  But those lessons are often shaped by gender and class.

In my academic work I find that many parents, especially those from the upper-middle class, realize how important it is for girls to play competitive sports. Why? Parents perceive that there are numerous long-term benefits in terms of adult professional achievement.

What might these benefits be? I’ll highlight three here, but soon you will be able to read a whole chapter on this topic in my book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. (Note: As part of this research I interviewed parents from 95 families with primary school-age kids involved in chess, dance, and soccer. I was especially interested in understanding how parents of girls chose between the two physical activities [dance and soccer] for their daughters.)

1) Learning how to be part of a team- The team element of competitive youth sports was especially important to many parents I met.  Here’s an illustrative quote from one Ivy-League educated soccer (American football) mom:

We have no illusions that our children are going to be great athletes. But the team element (is important). I worked for Morgan Stanley for 10 years, and I interviewed applicants, and that ability to work on a team was a crucial part of our hiring process. So it’s a skill that comes into play much later. It’s not just about ball skills or hand-eye coordination.

2) Learning how to strive to win, be the best, and be aggressive- This same mother went on to explain why she thought ice hockey was such a good choice for her daughter. Her daughter actually played two travel sports– soccer and ice hockey.  Her comments also highlight what additional skills children acquire when they make the jump from recreational participation in team sports to competitive youth sports where the emphasis on winning and being aggressive becomes amplified.

When I was interviewing [job candidates] at Morgan Stanley, if I got a female candidate—because it’s banking and you need to be aggressive, you need to be tough—if she played, like, ice hockey, done. My daughter’s playing, and I’m just a big believer in kids learning to be confidently aggressive, and I think that plays out in life assertiveness.

3) Learning to use sports to connect across social boundaries (like sex and class)- You may notice that this mother is a professional who is highly credentialed.  This was true of many of the soccer parents  that I interviewed.  We can think of them as part of the American upper-middle class.  Sports are quite important in American upper-middle class culture because athletics celebrate and promote many of the values that are valued in professional work environments. In the past these values (like learning to win, for example) applied more to men than women.  But today parents expect the same sort of achievement from their sons and daughters, and see sports as a way to teach this lesson to their daughters.  They seem to be on the right track. Recent economic research has found that participation in sports while in secondary school increases the likelihood that a girl attends university, enters the labor market, and enters previously male-dominated occupations.

These classed lessons in femininity are an unexplored way in which gender and class reproduction occurs, beginning in childhood.  While we root for athletes from our home nations, and those whose stories resonate with us, during this Summer Olympics it’s important to understand the various social forces that shape these athletes’ past and future achievements, and those who they inspire.