(Competitive) Afterschool Activities and Inequality: More Thoughts

While my favorite part of having now published a book is hearing what people think (even though I recently got my first not-so-great Amazon review) after they have read the whole book, I also love connecting with those who may never read the book by publishing pieces connected to the book. Of course, any short article is but a piece of the larger puzzle; I absolutely loved how Stephanie Sprenger described Playing to Win in her second entry about it as part of The Brilliant Book Club: Illuminating Reads for Parents (all links available to the ten entries here). On her blog Mommy, for Real Sprenger wrote: "Let me explain something about this book: it has many, many layers. Playing to Win is an extremely comprehensive, well-researched, insight-laden look at competitive activities for children in America. There is simply no way that any of us can include every aspect of the book in our posts; Playing to Win considers social class, race, gender, and other factors that I am choosing not to include in my own post, rather than risk losing all of you with a 4000 word missive." So it's not surprising that my most recent piece at The Atlantic EDU understandably left a few things out, and I'd like to clarify a bit since I have received many emails, comments, and press coverage about it-- as I did the last time an Atlantic piece I did generated lots of conversation.

First of all, many were upset about the headline, "After-School Activities Make Educational Inequality Even Worse." They read this as I argue that afterschool activities should be disbanded. This is of course not my position at all! I find many, many useful benefits to participation-- so much so that I believe more kids should have access to the opportunities they provide. The problem, as it were, is that many schools (especially at younger age levels) don't offer many afterschool programs (for the answer as to why that is read Chapter 1), which means families go outside the school system and pay for their kids to have these opportunities. That is where the inequality comes in.

Family sports Mary Ann Chastain for AP

The second, related point to clarify is that what is really being talked about here are competitive afterschool activities. Kids can gain many valuable lessons/skills from recreational participation (like teamwork, the importance of practice, etc.), but these are ratcheted up when you have to try out for an activity and then compete on a regular basis. Again, this often means another financial investment, further crowding out many. With a few exceptions in chess, these activities exist completely outside of the school system. This pay-to-play model means that many low income students are simply shut-off from the experience-- which has implications in terms of skill sets in activities later on and in terms of social skills to be applied in various academic and professional settings.  Again, I believe that ALL kids can benefit and should develop these skills. My issue is that right now, the way the system is structured, only more privileged kids get access in many cases.

And why does this matter? In the more proximate long-term this matters for college admissions-- as I write in the most recent issue of Education Next. Many colleges value these activities as proxies for measuring ambition in youth. More importantly these activities develop the skills- what I call competitive kid capital- to succeed not only in college, but beyond. A conversation with a high school friend who works at a Charter School about this piece captures this perfectly: "Even when our kids perform well by our standards, they still aren't prepared to participate and thrive in society at large because they don't have these intangible skills. Sometimes I feel like education reform is focused on creating a legion of call center employees and security guards instead of actually improving the long term outcomes of students in underserved communities." I responded: "Yes, the college *completion* rates for underprivileged kids who get into great colleges are pretty abysmal. It's more than test scores and classes-- it's giving kids these intangible social skills that come with a certain type of upbringing. Programs like chess can be so helpful, and low cost, and impart many of these lessons. I hope the powers that be listen!"

A final point about this that has come up in a few conversations with reporters and commenters is that it is actually useful in many cases to think about kids' participation in organized, out-of-school activities as a form of children's work. I published a paper on this topic a few years ago in which I argue that in our type of economy the afterschool hours (space between school and family) are even more important for future training and the advantage here clearly goes to the well-off kids. Check out that paper from Childhood here.

Now, back to my first "meh" review on Amazon. The reader was disappointed I didn't offer more practical advice. It's so funny because based on my academic/peer reviews some wanted me to actually delete all the advice I do offer in the conclusion (many don't know that books published by academic/university presses go through a review process and the University of California's is one of the most stringent)! I fought to keep in what is in there, and I do offer some advice, though not as much as some straight parenting books on the market certainly. Going back to The Brilliant Book Club posts, in a comment to one a reader wrote, "I was really impressed with the way HLF used her material and the way she explained HOW she was using the material, but I have no background in this field in particular. So too I enjoyed the way she put our current state of anxiety in context and how the book was a laying bare of a phenomenon, not a judgment of that phenomenon." To which I replied, "Yay– you totally GOT what I was trying to do. In the end, I do make judgments, but honestly the whole time I was doing the research and analysis, I didn’t (I learned how NOT to do this studying child beauty pageants before… Although some chess parents I met are seriously “crazier” than many pageant moms!). I was *forced* to do it while turning the dissertation into a book and I do think it’s necessary, but it’s also good to have a pure research perspective for a good portion of time too."

Now, the good news is that often these shorter articles related to the book actually give me the opportunity to offer more advice. Like, for example, this recent piece I have in a local magazine (complete with a pic of me and my son). Just like my competitive kids, it's all a balancing act in the end!

As always, would love your thoughts on any articles, or the book, and please feel free to leave any sort of review on Amazon, B&N, or Goodreads-- even if it is a "meh" one...

In closing, check out this fun appearance I did on Connecticut's The Carousel Show talking about Playing to Win, sociology, being a mom, and next book project!

An American Girl: Every Day is a Competition

In the midst of my book tour, I heard a song on the radio for the first time. I almost pulled the car off the road. Here's the song:

(In case you missed it, you can see the lyrics here; warning that the song is pretty catchy, which is not surprising given that Bonnie McKee has apparently penned most of Katy Perry's #1 hits.)

Can you guess which line shocked me? Here it is: "I'm an American girl... Every day is a competition." And, no, she doesn't mean the dolls.

Of course there is more to this song to unpack, like the lines, "I was raised by a television...I'm loving taking over the wold... No I don't listen to mommy." But it's the competition line that caught my attention and, frankly, shocked me. If competition in American girlhood is so accepted as to be part of a pop music hit, where do we go from here?

In August my piece on girls and competition (an excerpt from Playing to Win that ran in The Atlantic) garnered a lot of attention and comments. So clearly I am no stranger to competition in American girlhood. Still, the notion that it is sung about and seen as normal as being reared on TV is new to me-- and strangely empowering, even if it is worrisome.

It used to be we only celebrated competition for boys, so perhaps it is progress this is so mainstream for girls now. Recent articles that cite Playing to Win highlight this rise of competition, especially as it impacts girls-- like this piece in The New Republic on ballet competitions. 

In other press I have done recently, like this Podcast or this piece on letting a child quit an activity, the images accompanying them have portrayed girls-- like this:

I think it's great that girls are portrayed as often, and sometimes more so, when talking about competitive afterschool activities (not all the time, like here, but nonetheless this is a GREAT article on early specialization among kids today).

Of course it's not just gender that matters among kids today; as I write here, class and inequality matter a lot, as does our American context.

So Bonnie McKee has it right that every day is a competition among American girls. It's just unclear if this matters or not-- even though parents surely think it does (as I argue in this most recent essay in Education Next). But it is certainly an idea that has gone mainstream.

Now, I'm off to catch up on my TV... and my competition. Yes, I'm an American girl myself.

The Costs (Financial and Emotional) of Youth Sports

The big sports story in Boston this week is of course the World Series. But it's also significant that this week it's not Boston-based parents who are the subject of the bad sports parent story making national headlines. As I've written about before in Boston Magazine, youth sports in Massachusetts tend to be extremely competitive and lead to some ill-behavior. Boston Sports Parents by Zohar Lazar for Boston Magazine

In the tournament showdown in the piece hockey parents took the "prize," so it's no surprise that when a parent got in a fight at a youth sporting event and actually punched a CHILD, it was at a hockey game. A 14-year-old was punched in the face by a 44-year-old chiropractor in Palm Beach County, FL. Dr. Matthew Supran was arrested after also pounding the child's head into the boards. It must be noted that Palm Beach is an affluent area and Supran is obviously educated-- showing that the intense competitive youth culture impacts people even at the higher ends of the class structure.

Earlier this month an article I wrote for The Atlantic on the history of on competitive youth sports helped inspire this NYT's Room for Debate, which provoked some thoughtful responses and comments on how to balance these activities for kids. Of course the focus should be on kids, and not parents. A mix of fun and seriousness seems to be the right mix, but it's hard to get that exactly right.

And, of course, participation in these activities isn't free-- not even close. Last weekend NBC Nightly News did a segment on two baseball playing brothers at IMG Academies and how much their parents pay each year (close to six-figures for *each* of them). As you'll see around 1:43 of this clip, I make an appearance emphasizing how important it is to not just focus on one activity for the health of your child, by which I mean both physically and psychologically.

While this post may seem a bit negative, it is important to remember that there are also many benefits to participation in youth sports, as I wrote about last week for The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Human Capital blog (a Foundation that has funded parts of my research). In fact I emphasize that the impact of participation can be so great that we need to work to ensure that *all* children have access to the skills and lessons youth sports help develop, and not just the kids whose parents can invest six-figures and who live in Palm Beach...

Confessions of a First Time Academic Author on Book Tour

Before my book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, came out, people kept asking me if I would be going on a book tour. My response was always to laugh because these days if you aren't Daniel Silva, Alice Munro, or Malcolm Gladwell, no one is rolling out the red carpet for you (and your publisher, even a big name one, doesn't really have the kind of resources to do that). Given that my first book was published by a university press-- albeit a great one, especially for what I do [University of California]-- the thought was basically a pipe dream. These days a blog tour is a far more realistic goal, and likely one that helps you reach more readers anyway (and, lucky me, a group of amazing bloggers has been writing about Playing to Win through The Brilliant Book Club: Illuminating Reads for Parents). But I knew I would want to do some local celebrating at least, so over the summer I contacted my local Barnes & Noble and some other independent book stores in the area. The same day I contacted them, my local B&N had me scheduled. Yes, it was that easy!

Hillary Friedman Barnes and Noble(A few months later at my local B&N doing a discussion and signing-- my first! Also covered by my local Patch, a great resource.)

So then I thought perhaps I should contact some other bookstores within driving distance of my house. When they set dates as well I looked ahead to my fall calendar to check out places where I knew I would be traveling already (like when I went to visit my husband working in DC for the year) and then contacted bookstores in those areas. I also did a few trips that dovetailed with family visits, so that in the end I only really paid for one trip solely as a book promotion event. And thus my own little "national book tour" was organized.

Now given my royalty cut and the number of books you can realistically expect to sell at any given event, you aren't doing these signings to make money-- though it's great visibility for your book, of course. But that also means trying to keep costs down in other ways; for instance, I got to sleep on the air mattresses of a few friends (though I don't recommend this in your second, and especially your third trimester of pregnancy...). Given my academic background I also often combined a book signing at a store with a talk at a local university.

Many people have been surprised that all my signings ended up at Barnes & Noble stores. Some might see this as a sign of a big box gobbling up smaller stores, which of course may be true, but it's not the whole story here. I also always contacted independent book stores and I often never heard anything back. Stores I did here back from were already booked 5-6 months in advance and didn't have any openings when I would be in town. The good news from this though is that Barnes & Nobles were for the most part tremendously responsive and supportive, doing their own publicity and always getting me a drink (again, this matters when you are pregnant).

What else was good-- and bad, and ugly from my tour?

The Good

1) Seeing old friends- I know my focus should always be on selling books, but honestly one of the best parts of traveling around the country was connecting with so many people from different parts of my life. At one event I had family along with friends from high school, college, and grad school, and then total strangers sitting side-by-side. That was pretty cool, and much of it thanks to Facebook (a reminder of how important social media is to authors).

In my home town I also had two of my middle school teachers present (The woman on the left actually taught me Language Arts and was my advisor for Accelerated Reader and Forensics so to say she contributed in some way to every phase of this book is not an understatement! And the woman on the right taught me pre-algebra and U.S. History and in general how to be an organized student.) and even my orthodontist (If you know me well you know I spent close to ten years of my life in braces and survived two reconstructive jaw surgeries, so it's not as crazy as it sounds given how well I know him, but it's still very neat).

45E. 59.(Clearly I also did some childcare double duty from time to time as well-- but that's the life of a working writer mama!)

I took many more photos with friends at events-- and I love it when friends send me photos of their own copies of the book, or better yet their own kids with the book-- and sometime in the next few weeks I will be making a photo book so I can always remember these times.

2) Making new, very young friends- Every single store I went to had me do something slightly different and no two stores did things in exactly the same way. Some wanted a reading and discussion, others just a meet-and greet, for example-- but more on that later. At events where I did a meet-and greet, especially on the weekends, I got to chat with some of the youngest readers. Whenever a store put me in the front, right by the door, and especially close to the children's section, I got to see kids. So many of them were just so impressed to meet a "real" author. Several asked me what they would have to do to write a book someday and I told them to just keep reading! Those interactions never directly resulted in sales (who knows, maybe their parents went online later to buy though), but they did give my appearances extra special meaning for me.


The Bad

1) Being late.- Call it Murphy's Law, but whenever I had a good turnout something would go wrong; whenever the turnout was low (or sometimes, sob, non-existent), the store had tons of copies of the book and beautiful signs all over the store, and even in the windows!

86.The worst was definitely when I was 45 minutes late to a signing due to unbelievable traffic. Yes, that was worse than the one event I had to cancel due to a childcare issue related to my husband's job. At least I knew with a few days' notice I had to cancel, when I was late I was just late. In the end, I knew there was nothing I could do, but I still shed a few stress-related tears.

2) Being hidden- It was also very frustrating to go to some stores and basically be hidden. When you are asked to do a meet-and-greet but you are put in the music section of the store you aren't going to get any foot traffic or connect with people who might have been looking for anything remotely similar to your book. You can sit with a smile on your face, and drink something, but it's pretty dispiriting. Luckily, they weren't all like that, of course! I also found, similar to point #1, that some stores ordered many more copies of my book than others and a few times I almost sold out. I wished that the extra books from other signings could have been easily transferred.

The Ugly

1) Promotion vs. Sales- As you can probably tell based on how this little book tour came about, I am pretty resourceful , and I think, decent at self-promotion. I always figure it's better to ask and the worst thing someone can say is, "No." But one thing I did learn about myself from this experience is that while I may be comfortable with promotion, I'm not a great salesperson when it comes to myself. Two examples: 1) At one store the manager asked me to walk around with my book and go up to customers to tell them about it. I just couldn't bring myself to do this! [Note that this was a good example of how every store does things differently because another store told me explicitly not to talk with customers and try to sell the book and bug them-- something I completely understood!] It somehow felt like begging. 2) At another store, a meet-and-greet near the front door, I was paired with two other authors. I didn't know beforehand, but once I arrived I thought this could be great since it would be less lonely and all of our books were quite different so we might get one another new readers after an initial chat. One of the authors excelled at her own saleswomanship though. When someone would walk in the front door she would immediately ask, "Do you read true crime?" And then launch into a description of her book. Again, I had a hard time doing this-- felt like I was invading readers' shopping experiences. At one point though when a reader responded she couldn't read the true crime book, finding the topic upsetting (a mother killing her two teenage children), I jumped in that my book was quite different, about parents who invest a lot in their kids. Well the saleswoman author then jumped back in that her murdering mom had also done lots of afterschool activities with her kids, but still killed them. At that the reader walked away and I decided to just keep my mouth shut...

2) Bringing your own books- It only happened once (and also the only store that wasn't prepared for my event when I arrived, with people actually waiting), but I actually had to get other stores to transfer books and carry them in myself because the books hasn't arrived to the store in time-- another case of be prepared for anything on a book tour!

So what practical advice can I offer to other first time authors, especially from small presses?

The first is to sign your books! I learned that once a book is signed it can't be returned. That means it's a sale actually. At one of my final stops the manager told me to sign their whole stock and they won't even get stuck with it-- it gets sent back to a warehouse and distributed to other stores as a signed copy. By the end of my tour I was signing all books and not being shy about it-- which I was at the beginning.

Hillary Friedman Barnes and Noble[Sidenote: One of the truly strange experiences here was signing my married name. I really never sign it and I had no practice doing it! Sure I scrawl a signature on credit card receipts-- one too many according to my husband, of course-- but I rarely try to write legibly. I could sign "Hilary Levey" well and quickly, but then would have to pause to think about it when I signed "Friedman." Again, by the end of my tour I was better at this, but it took getting used to.]

Speaking of signing, do get signage. I didn't take this everywhere, but I did like having this roll down/up sign (a tip I got from taking a book promotion seminar at Grub Street in Boston).

PlayingtoWinBookLaunch011In the end I often had to check it on a plane and it wasn't worth the $50 baggage fee (see previous comment on royalty cut), but it was worth it other places. Would be much easier to use now if I wasn't the aforementioned 3rd trimester-pregnant, but if I was more mobile and able to bend over more easily, I'd have used it even more.

Finally, whenever you can, do a reading/discussion. While meet-and-greets could be fun for meeting kids and total strangers, I attracted more in-store customers when I was reading. At one event a high school student sat down and shared his own experiences based on what I read, which was neat. Also, even if only four people were there for a whole reading, I felt more energized after, especially if there were good questions.

I'm really glad I did this and I learned a lot for the next (!) time. It also helped that because of my pregnancy I could put a pretty firm deadline on when I would stop doing events. While my in-store events are done I am doing talks at parents' clubs and other similar more private groups.

And let's just say that I will never forget doing this at my college bookstore, almost exactly 15 years to the date after I bought my first book there-- a book for a Sociology class that set me down this whole path in the first place...

19.Now, though, I am simply ready for a nap!

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!