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 PsychologyToday.com- 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!

Cheering on Cheer

Today I woke up excited it was Friday-- but then I realized I wouldn't be getting a new episode of Cheer and I had to hit the snooze button to recover. Cheer, which has aired on CMT for the past six weeks, quickly became one of my favorite reality series, warming my normally analytical sociological heart.  It focuses on a group of senior all-star cheerleaders from Jersey, coached by the tough but loving Patty Ann Romero, who runs Central Jersey Allstars.  I'm usually critical of reality shows that feature young kids (for example, see my article in USA Today about how the law should better protect kids on reality television shows)-- though I watch them all, of course, especially those that feature performance elements like dance and singing.  I've gone on record saying that I think Toddlers & Tiaras should be off the air and that much of Dance Moms is contrived, and contrived in a way that hurts the young dancers.

But I studied both child beauty pageants and competitive dance, so I'm more of an insider when it comes to those activities.  While I've read a lot about "cheer," or cheerleading, I've never seen a competition or practice in person.  Obviously there are similarities to competitive dance, beauty pageants, and even Irish dancing, but all-star cheering comes with its own lingo, style, and cast of characters.  It was fun to learn that "Senior 5" did not refer to the number of seniors in a group, that most of the girls don't use wiglets but their real hair to get those bouncy girls, and that Happy Hooper is a real person (and I assume the inspiration for Sparky Polastri in Bring It On?).

Happy Hooper is just one of the "characters" I enjoyed while watching Cheer, and one of many adults who I thought was portrayed as positive role models in the series.  Hooper comes in as a pyramid expert to help the team increase their difficulty.  The girls from Jersey definitely enjoy his Southern accent while benefiting from his expertise.  Note that cheerleading is one of the best childhood activities when it comes to properly credentialing people to coach kids; of course, this is likely related to its high injury rate.  While anyone can open a cheer gym in the same way anyone can open a dance studio or gymnastics facility, only certified coaches can participate in particular organizations' competitions (the warring cheer organizations would likely make an interesting documentary subject as well, based on what I've read!).

The most positive role model is clearly the head coach of CJA, Patty Ann Romero (I noticed on their website that she is co-founder of the gym, so hopefully in a Season 2 we'd learn more about others in the gym as well). Patty Ann is tough, but loving. She sheds tears when her team wins, she sheds tears when she is proud of them even if that doesn't mean coming in first, and she sheds tears when she thinks she herself has made a mistake-- powerfully shown in episode 3 when a bullying situation comes up in the gym.  This is clearly a woman who loves both coaching young kids and winning.  Unlike others (like, oh, Abby Lee Miller), her ego doesn't seem to get in the way of her focus on raising young kids into adulthood.  Let's face it, most kids who start any competitive activity will not end up being professionals, but they can learn how to be more successful adults through participation with the aid of tough but constructive coaching.  Based on what was shown on Cheer that's the case at CJA with Patty Ann in charge.

That doesn't mean there aren't any tears on the part of the kids in the show. Indeed just as many tears were shown in practice as at competitions. I'm sure the private office coach sit downs were sometimes a bit staged (though at least most of the time these dressing downs were "in private," and not in front of the team, though my most serious critique is that preserving these sessions on camera isn't ideal for young girls), but there wasn't any pyramid foolishness.  Mama drama was kept to a minimum too, as Patty Ann blocks off the viewing room windows from inside the gym.  When the moms were shown it was almost always for positive reasons, like organizing a team fundraiser.  That doesn't mean there isn't drama between parents on the team, of course, but it does mean they behaved like reasonable adults and didn't screen obscenities at one another in front of kids or on camera.

Instead of focusing on extraneous drama Cheer allowed the natural drama of kids and competition to unfold.  It showed the winning and the losing, the hard work, and the injuries.  It also showed the development of leadership skills in these young women.

On a fun note,Cheeralso showed some amazing hair. Patty Ann's 'do is a true wonder (Jersey obviously produces women who invest a lot of time in their signature hair styles); I imagine she has a great teasing brush, set of curlers, and hairspray.  So do her girls, who know how to work a curling iron like no one's business. I personally like the curled ponies, which keeps the hair out of their faces while they tumble, though I prefer them without the huge Snooki-like pouf in front, as pictured below.

Here you see some CJA hair, and the genuine affectation the head coach and one of her charges seem to have for one another.  CJA admits they are tough and they aren't for everyone-- but there is a lot of love there.  I'm guessing CJA likely doesn't hold grudges if a family decides someplace else is more their style, as they recognize they aren't for everyone, but I could be wrong.  I'm guessing just like in other activities there are issues around student poaching, choreography theft, and age group tampering, but I'd like to think CJA doesn't engage in any of these typical behaviors.

Now, can't we get Patty Ann her own Ultimate Cheer Show instead of rewarding teachers who focus more on negativity?