When you write a book, you end up writing even more!

I had heard that writing a book is only part of the bigger picture when a book comes out-- and people were right! "Properly" promoting a book is a full-time job, and often you are asked to write even more. While I haven't been writing original content for my blog so much these days, that's because I've been writing a lot at other places. Here's a quick round-up of pieces you might want to check out.

1) “The Problem with Prize Culture.” TIME Ideas.

2) “Do Your Kids Need More Competitive Capital?Harvard Business Review Blog.

3) “How to Choose the Best Afterschool Activity for Your Child.” Mamapedia.

4) “The Rise of Private Hebrew Tutoring.” The Jewish Daily Forward’s Sisterhood Blog.

5) “Where It Hurts: The most common sports injuries for kids may surprise you.” The Boston Globe Magazine. Pg. 27.

[Researching PLAYING TO WIN inspired me to study youth sports injuries as a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard, in conjunction with researchers at Boston Children's Hospital and Princeton, as this was an issue on competitive dance and soccer. Our first paper out of the project was released last month in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, and more will hopefully be out soon. But this is such an important issue for parents with kids involved in any type of physical activity!]

I'm also gratified that the book has been getting a nice reception from readers and fellow social scientists. Please check out my review in Publishers Weekly!  My favorite lines here include, "This impressive study... Friedman provides great insight... This study is vital reading for parents and educators interesting in how the American idea of winners and losers is trickling down to the next generation." The book also got some nice coverage on orgtheory, and I am extremely excited to reach a great group of parent readers through The Brilliant Book Club: Illuminating Reads for Parents over the next several weeks! You can also check out how PLAYING TO WIN fared doing The Page 99 Book test!

Hope you can come meet me in person at one of the book signings I have scheduled!


I'll even read for you:

Hillary Friedman Barnes and NobleCheck out more pics from recent events, like this one, here.


And, if you can't, please send me photos of where you are reading PLAYING TO WIN!


Brains vs. Beauty: Considering Kids' Participation in Beauty Pageants, Chess, and Football

In response to yesterday's post on child beauty pageants in Australia (or not) I received a variety of thoughtful comments. One of them was from The Family Factor who wrote, 
So what happens to the girls' views of the audience when they realize the[y] did not cut it? The idea that outward appearance is what gives you the edge in life is further entrenched and each time the girls become more self-conscious about what the audience is feeling about them compared to someone 'prettier'. To me this creates further insecurity rather than confidence.
Collett's point is a very important one.  We enroll kids in activities that are meant to be fun, educational, and constructive.  But what happens when the kids just can't cut it and aren't "good enough?"

When I was studying elementary school kids who play scholastic chess I confronted this question directly.  The following exchange is from an interview with a first-grade boy who played in local chess tournaments:

Hilary: Do you want to play at a really big tournament someday, like the Nationals?
Jun: Not really.
Hilary: Why not?
Jun: Well, because, I'm thinking that Nationals are good, right? And smart. So, right now, I'm not smart enough... I just feel it.

I was concerned by Jun's reaction and asked one of the chess coaches if this is a usual response (especially because Jun in fact was a talented chess player and a smart kid).  The coach told me, "Of course when you start losing then you ask yourself questions. Why do I lose? Maybe I am not smart." Because chess is a mental game, when you fail, you worry that you are simply not smart enough to participate and succeed.  
Parents were also aware of this issue. A chess mom told me she worried this notion could really damage her third-grade daughter's self-esteem, and in the process push her away from math and science. She explained, "Unlike soccer or baseball or a team sport, it’s just you [in chess]. You can’t blame it on a teammate...It’s your brain.  I think it could be a very weird thing and potentially devastating to say that my mind wasn’t working well."
Even though we celebrate athletic talent in our society, the brain still reigns supreme. I believe this is part of the reason why concussions have been the focus of so much media attention (which I've discussed before here). An ACL tear can heal, as can a broken bone. But a broken brain? That's something else entirely.  Should we risk long-term damage to the brain for fleeting athletic glory?
This one was one of many great questions raised in last night's Frontline documentary called Football High. The episode focused on Shiloh, a small, private, Christian high school in Arkansas that has rocketed to the top of national high school (American style) football rankings. In telling Shiloh's story the producers  illuminated important questions about the current state of youth sports: the rise of private coaches, the professionalization of high school sports on television, the use of elaborate ranking systems for middle school and high school players, and the recruitment of collegiate players younger than ever. What does all this mean? High school athletes spend more hours in practice than NCAA athletes, with basically no regulation and often under the supervision of adults who aren't properly trained to care for their health. The consequence? More injuries, like heat stroke and concussions.  We hear about the tragic stories of Tyler Davenport, a high school football player who died of heat stroke this past fall following a football practice, and Owen Thomas, a football captain at University of Pennsylvania who had signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in his brain after he committed suicide last spring.  When they were told to push themselves harder, to be "good enough," they did.

Given what I study people often ask me what activities I will enroll my own kids in someday, when I have them. I can say with 95% certainty that if I have a son, I would not let him play football, especially if the game and its safety standards don't change.  It's just too risky to the brain and future development.

Which brings me back to beauty pageants and the question raised by The Family Factor.  The truth is that I am also 95% sure that if I have a daughter I wouldn't let her participate in a beauty pageant (too much family history, given that my mother was Miss America 1970).  However, in terms of damage to the brain (both physical and psychological), I don't see how beauty pageants are much worse than football.

In fact, on the point of sending girls a negative message about not being "pretty enough," I'd like to raise two points essentially in defense of pageants.  First of all it would be nice to think we live in a society where looks and appearances don't matter.  Many people work to change the fact that looks, especially women's looks, are so consequential, and this is definitely a worthy enterprise.  But the fact is, for both men and women, how you look matters-- if you think how much you earn matters or who your partner is matters (I say this in seriousness as some people value different things, like happiness, which is not always related to income or romantic partnerships).  As a sociologist I believe standards of beauty are partly determined by our society; but I also believe that some of this is biological.  For a great discussion of these issues check out Nancy Etcof's Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of BeautyWe know from numerous studies by economists and psychologists that taller, and better-looking people are paid more and people are nicer to them. I'm not saying this is right, but it is the way it is.  That parents want to advantage their kids-- in this case mainly their daughters-- by emphasizing how to look their best starting at a young age is then not irrational.  Of course, spending thousands and thousands of dollars to teach that lesson is not so rational-- and girls could learn how to improve their appearance in various ways from other activities that aren't beauty pageants.

In terms of concerns about girls' self-perception, I think this is a serious issue around pageants, as I wrote about yesterday. However, somewhat paradoxically, when it comes to concerns about not being "pretty enough," I worry about this the most when it comes to natural pageants. In natural pageants a girl wears no make-up, doesn't wear super fancy dresses with lots of rhinestones, etc. Often at natural pageants girls walk on stage and model a bit, but the routines are not at all elaborate. At glitz pageants, by contrast, "total package" competitors do best. It doesn't matter if you aren't the most "facially beautiful," using only what you were born with.  Instead, you can work to "enhance" that beauty.  On top of that, and more important here, you can work to become a good model, practicing choreographed routines, and working on specific skills for the routines like triple turns.  In other words, girls can learn the value of practice and hard work from glitz pageants, rather than just coasting on natural good looks like in some natural pageants.

Given that I am a person who lives more of an intellectual life, I likely will teach my children how to play chess. I don't know if they will ever play in a chess tournament because I don't know if they will be any good. Of course, they can always get better through hard work and practice.  But some kids are just better suited to different activities with different skill sets. I'm determined to find out what my children enjoy and what they can be best at by exposing them to various activities (I intend to parent using my "childhood is a buffet" metaphor-- though football and beauty pageants won't be on my child's spread). I believe everyone has something they are good at, where they can "cut it," and it's our job as parents to help them discover their passion and what that might be-- whether it be chess, football, beauty pageants, or any other number of other endeavors like music and art.

What sorts of activities are off limit for your kids and why?

Mommy/Daddy, It Hurts

Please note that this was syndicated on BlogHer on April 8, 2010: http://www.blogher.com/mommydaddy-it-hurts. Check it out! April is National Youth Sports Safety Month, according to the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation (NYSSF). I've been thinking a lot youth sports injuries-- last week I presented some preliminary findings from my research on youth sports injuries and the relative-age effect (which is joint with Rebecca Casciano and Children's Hospital Boston). One of the NYSSF's "Tips for Athletes" is especially relevant: "Some children grow faster than others and some have better coordination earlier than others. Everyone catches up eventually. Be patient."

I've mentioned my interest in age cut-offs here before, but today I want to highlight a different set of findings about how parents deal with youth sports injuries, which are especially timely.  Last week Gatorade released a study of "Sports Moms," a group they estimate is about 13 million strong.  Based on a poll of 900 mothers of middle- and high-school age athletes, Gatorade reports that these sports moms spend more money on, and time with, their kids than parents whose children don't play sports.  To do so they sacrifice their own personal time like sleep, exercise, and leisure.

It's not at all surprising that Gatorade chose to focus on sports moms, as they tend to be more involved in children's afterschool lives.  Dads are getting more involved, especially with girls and sports and coaching, but for the most part moms are still the ones who do the "dirty" work of washing uniforms and schlepping to and from practices.  I've always thought that the title of this book, by an Australian academic, pretty much sums it up: Mom's Taxi: Sport and Women's Labor

So it didn't surprise us that moms were much more likely to be with kids when they visited the doctor for a youth sports injuries.  What did surprise us is how many dads were present as well. Out of 989 office visits, dads were at the appointment 44.7% of the time.

However, dads are significantly more likely to be at an appointment if it is their son who is injured, irrespective even of a child's age.

(Note that there are more injured girls in our sample-- 54.3% of 2291-- which is higher than expected based on the sex ratio for girls this age born in the state of Massachusetts).

We have several possible explanations for this, but I'm interested to hear your thoughts! Is it that dads are simply more invested in their sons' athletic careers, or that boys play sports that are more likely to interest men (unlike, for the most part, the girls who dance, do gymnastics, or figure skate)? Other thoughts?

Diving into Coaching

Greg Louganis, arguably the greatest diver of all time, and one of the greatest Olympians of all time, just started coaching young divers.  His accomplishments are extraordinary, but as many know, having superior skills does not always transfer to superior teaching.

Louganis' skills as a coach are his knowledge of diving technique and his ability to teach mental awareness and toughness.  He emphasizes basic mechanics and does not allow a diver to move on until they have mastered skills.  Louganis also says that practice is more important than competition and he has each of his students keep a journal where they can reflect on training and goals.  Louganis reports, "A lot of parents say they're on board with it... we'll see how well they can hang in there."

Parents should trust the knowledge of a teacher or coach and be patient with them in producing results and improving technique, even if that coach isn't as accomplished as Greg Louganis.  Tiger Mom Amy Chua got it right (at least in this instance!) when she said parents should not criticize a teacher/coach in front of a child.

That said, there are areas every parent should think about before enrolling their child in an afterschool activity.  Based on years researching various afterschool activities, I recommend parents investigate the background of potential teachers/coaches in three areas: expertise, teaching, and safety.  With some of these questions you should ask the teacher, or owner, directly.  For others you will want to ask around town.  Though beware listening to everything a few disgruntled parents say; however if many parents have negative things to say you should pay attention!  These questions may seem like obvious ones, but when it comes to kids' activities, they aren't often asked-- and that needs to change especially given the level of competition and the number of injuries currently observed in children's activities.

1) Expertise- You should make sure the teacher or coach has in-depth knowledge of the activity and some credentials to be teaching the activity to others.

If you ever watch So You Think You Can Dance you know that Nigel Lythgoe is constantly complaining about dance teachers who do not know technique and are making a lot of money telling people they can dance. Unqualified teachers make it difficult for the qualified teachers who do know technique to succeed.  When I was studying soccer I interviewed one business owner who proudly told me that because he is from Latin America parents assume he is good at soccer. In fact, he is a terrible player; instead of playing up skills, he plays up his accent which he claimed parents responded to well. This owner did hire qualified coaches, but it's easy to imagine this situation going a different way.

You should exercise your right as a parent to protect your child and find out the answers to the following questions:

  • Does my child's potential teacher/coach have technical ability in the subject matter? 
  • Can they demonstrate fluent knowledge of technique?
  • Were they themselves a diver/chess player/dancer/football player, etc.? 
  • What do they know about the mechanics of how the activity works (either knowledge of mental processes or, more importantly, awareness of physiology and how the body best works)? 
  • What formal credentials do they have to promote themselves as teachers/coaches-- college degrees, training certifications, etc.?

2) Teaching- Whatever the activity is, those who work with young people should have knowledge of how to teach young people-- this includes understanding learning techniques and children's social dynamics.  This is especially true in competitive environments.  Teachers and coaches should have some knowledge of how to deal with self-esteem issues and how to mediate conflict between children, for example.

Spending time around academic afterschool activities, like enrichment classes and chess clubs, I witnessed many skilled chess and math experts who were not trained as teachers. When children cried, gave up, had short attention spans, or fought with one another, the teachers often did not know how to respond to the situation.

While of course there is not one right way to deal with any of these situations, classroom teachers learned when they were students themselves about different techniques for dealing with children at specific age levels.  Afterschool teachers and coaches would benefit from similar instruction, which would help improve their teaching and children's experiences.  Just as our society doesn't allow classroom teachers or daycare providers to be untrained and uncertified, we should be sure that those who work with our children in the afterschool hours are equally able.

3) Safety- This may seem obvious, but you would be surprised how many assumptions parents make, if only because things seem legitimate.

  • Do you know if your child's teacher or coach has ever been convicted of a crime, especially one involving a child? Not all states mandate background checks for teachers and coaches.  If you live in a state that doesn't, you should know that many of the insurance companies who insure athletic clubs/studios/gyms do have strict guidelines.  
  • Does the program have insurance? You can find out by asking who insures an organization; if the group is uninsured this should be a red flag about the legitimacy of the business (perhaps even its business standing. like filing taxes). 
  • Are teachers CPR certified? Are the physical surroundings acceptable for the physical nature of the activity (like the type of floor or the security/stability of equipment)? In addition to legal issues, you should also think about basic safety!

Remember, just because someone opens a gym or studio in a strip mall does not mean they are qualified, even on in these most basic areas. One of the programs I observed was not properly run in terms of insurance, taxes, and teacher safety.  These omissions were not committed out of malice on the part of the owner (instead they were related to financial constraints), but parents nevertheless should endeavor to be aware of these issues so they can protect their children.

While, thankfully, I am not aware of anyone I ever worked with being convicted of any crimes involving children, they do happen. Just this month a gymnastics coach in Arizona was arrested on suspicion of child molestation (though not in the gym itself).  Less than a year ago another gymnastics coach was arrested in Connecticut on similar charges.

In many families the three areas of expertise, teaching, and safety will be weighted in different ways. Some may value safety more, while others place less emphasis on expertise. Every parent will make the right decision for his/her child, but that decision should be made based on as much information as possible. Sadly, nail salons are better regulated and have more safety requirements than gyms, studios, and practice spaces where children can die or suffer catastrophic injury.

Parents, always, always ask questions and do your due diligence before signing your child up-- and once everything checks out, you can rest easier in deferring to the judgment of the teacher or coach.  Who knows, your child may end up learning from an Olympian!

Concussed Tiger Parents

I know what you are thinking: "Another Tiger Mom post?! What could anyone possibly add to that discussion at this point?" I generally agree, so I'll be brief.

Last week as I was checking out at CVS, this cover caught my eye. What I found most interesting was the smaller headline at the top: "Health Special: Kids and concussions."  I don't normally read Time (given my weekly reading of The Economist, The New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, and People [quite a diverse collection, I know], not to mention my monthly magazine subscriptions and my daily Internet routine, I have little, well, time) but the juxtaposition of these two stories meant I had to pick up the issue.

In the magazine itself the two stories appear back-to-back. I figure on some level this must have been deliberate by the editors. But, then again, maybe not, given that the concussions piece was likely in the works for some time. In any event all these youth concussions, on some level, are the result of American Tiger parents enrolling their kids in competitive sports in the hopes of snagging an NCAA scholarship or a spot in the pros.  Before the professionalization of youth sports (think paid coaches, year-round seasons, and early specialization) concussions were the result of child's play on playgrounds and during recess. Now they are the stuff of lawsuits and stress.

Interestingly, in that same week's issue of The New Yorker, Ben McGrath wrote a great piece on concussions and the NFL.  The youth component is implied, but the connection between excessive competition, athletics, and injury is clear.  When will others see the connections and start devising solutions, like better credentialing of trainers/coaches in youth sports and a limitation of the hours kids can engage in these fun but dangerous activities?