p.txtToday is our inaugural post in the Brilliant Book Club Series, our first of two posts on Hilary Levey Friedman’s Playing to Win. The Brilliant Book Club is a collaborative project among five bloggers: Lauren Apfel of Omnimom, Deb CG of Urban Moo Cow, Sarah Rudell Beach of Left Brain Buddha, Jessica Smock of School of Smock and Stephanie Sprenger (Me!) of Mommy, For Real.

The Brilliant Book Club is for parents who want to read the latest books about parenting — from research-based books on parenting practice to books that reflect on the emotional and personal aspects of childrearing. For more information, read our introductory post here. We will be sharing our posts on each book on the last Monday of every month.

Playing to Win is an in-depth look at the competitive culture of kids’ after-school activities, and focuses in particular on soccer, chess, and competitive dance. Levey Friedman examines the evolution of recreational pastimes for children, most specifically on the professionalization of competitive after-school activities. I found it fascinating to read about the history of competition in America; even General George Patton claimed, “Americans play to win all the time.” Levey Friedman notes that ours is a success-oriented society, in part because of Protestant roots that emphasize work ethic. Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget remarked on what he referred to as The American Question- parents who routinely asked if it was possible to speed up children’s development.

I was prepared for a discussion on the psychological and historical implications on this emphasis on competition in children’s “leisure” activities. But there is a crucial component to Playing to Win that I will admit I was not at all prepared for- the implication that children’s participation in recreational activities is directly linked to successful college admission. I was somewhat dumbfounded to read about this connection between competition in childhood somehow preparing children for college entrance exams and career success, and I felt slightly chagrined by my response. I mean, isn’t it kind of naive that I, as the mother of two children, would not be in touch with this phenomenon?

Parental Anxiety and Kid Performance

According to Levey Friedman, there is a definite link between parents’ anxieties about their elementary school-aged kids’ futures, particularly the significance of educational credentials, and their specific parenting strategies. Parents are fueled by a desire to develop credentials for their children- they believe that this is essential in order for them to gain entry into the “good life” of the upper-middle class and all that goes along with it. Parents are driven by this fear, and as Levey Friedman states,

Parents worry that if their children do not participate in childhood tournaments they will fall behind in the tournament of life.

One of the fascinating terms featured in Playing to Win is “Competitive Kid Capital.” The five characteristics of Competitive Kid Capital, according to the book, are:

  1. Internalizing the importance of winning.
  2. Bouncing back from a loss to win in the future.
  3. Learning how to perform within time limits.
  4. Learning how to succeed in stressful situations.
  5. Being able to perform under the gaze of others.

From this point of view, after-school activities are absolutely necessary to supplement grades and test scores- they are a crucial opportunity to develop Competitive Kid Capital. Levey Friedman notes that Baby Boomers and their children, the Echo Boomers, face a “competitive landscape that is more crowded than in previous generations”, with stakes that are even higher. Parents have subsequently assumed responsibility for their children’s college admission success or failure. According to Levey Friedman, these zealous parents are not crazy; she states, “Their children face very real gates and gatekeepers through which they need to pass if they are going to achieve in ways similar to their parents.”

It is apparently a common practice for kids to participate in three or more organized activities per week, or one focused activity for at least four hours a week. I found this discussion to be very interesting as a supplement to our exploration of Parenting Without Borders, particularly the chapter on academic pressure. In contrast with some Asian cultures’ zeal for academic excellence, in many ways the American craze is similar, but as Levey Friedman points out, is cloaked in the pretense of “fun.”

How Much Is Too Much?

I am sure that many of us have shaken our heads upon hearing of yet another crazy parent who has sued a preschool for ruining her child’s chance to get into an Ivy League school, but for many parents, this early pressure is a definite reality. Levey Friedman discusses test preparation “boot camps” for kindergarten and preschool admission; I would be lying if I said I didn’t find this practice to be nauseating. Is it really appropriate for four and five year olds to have that kind of pressure? Levey Friedman notes that some parents are definitely grooming their children for the Ivy League as early as preschool.  Are we seriously supposed to be thinking about college entrance exams when we sign our children up for T-ball or shop around for preschools? This seems absurd to me.

Playing to Win sheds light on just how intense some after-school activities are these days. Levey Friedman goes into great detail when describing the chess, soccer, and dance programs she observed, and to be honest, the intricacies, dedication, expenses, and intensity kind of blew me away. Recreational sports have come a long way over the past decades- it is common practice for soccer teams to have a full-time paid coach, a complex hierarchical division, a year-round season, and travel expectations.

I wondered if some of this hard-core devotion detracts from the enjoyment for the kids. I mean, isn’t it all just a little bit much? I snorted when I read Levey Friedman’s remark that it is common practice when a successful child quits an activity to say that they have “retired.” (In reality, the actual note I placed by this passage read, “WTF?”)

Bring Back the 1980s!

Levey Friedman chronicles the evolution of after-school activities, and discusses how the post-WWII decades were the beginning of competitive activities being dominated by the middle class. This was the time period when Little League came into existence. She references the “Explosion of Hyper-competitiveness,” an era that spans the 1980s until today. As a child of the 80s and 90s, I was technically raised during this era of competitiveness, but I guess I just never experienced my after-school activities that way.

I took piano lessons from age 8 through 19, voice lessons in high school, and I participated in marching band and several vocal ensembles as well. I took dance classes from ages 6-10, and I participated and placed in our local spelling bee several years in a row. So it’s not like I didn’t experience activities that may have unintentionally contributed to my Competitive Kid Capital. But let’s be honest- my own spelling bee triumphs in 1986 certainly pale in comparison to the current spelling bee champ standards.

My Cabbage Patch dolls practiced piano for two hours a day.

My Cabbage Patch dolls practiced piano for two hours a day.

I competed in musical competitions during my teenage years- some as individual performances, but many as part of a choir, elite vocal ensemble, or large marching band. I felt that the prevailing lessons with our competition and victories related more towards team connection and sportsmanship; the high we experienced when winning was thrilling, but it never seemed like it raised my own personal self-esteem.

I will admit- I felt a tremendous amount of disdain when I began to consider the link between competitive activities and college admission. And then I reflected for a moment; perhaps the poise I gained from singing in front of judges, or marching on a field during freezing conditions against formidable opponents, (you’d better not be mocking the seriousness of marching band competitions right now) and the hard work that went into preparing for a vocal competition really did prepare me for college and the work force. Maybe I am kidding myself that participation in these events is irrelevant to college planning.

Am I Setting My Own Children Up For Failure?

All of this reflection left me with one disconcerting thought: Am I doing my children a disservice with my somewhat lazy approach to recreation? My youngest child just turned 2, and given her rank as Kid #2, she has done jack squat for organized classes. This fact bothers me very little. Her older sister took  swim lessons as a toddler, (we quit because I would rather poke my eyes with pencils than continue to wrangle her in the pool and locker room) less than one year of dance at age 3, (we quit because the loud music bothered her) a year of gymnastics in kindergarten, (we quit because the coaches yelled at her for waving at her parents) six months of ballet/tap in 1st grade, (we quit because she just didn’t like it) and now we are on our second year of hip-hop dance.


Dance class was exhausting.

Notice a pattern here? We have also tried a few summer camps that focused on soccer, and while she participated somewhat willingly, she wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about it. (Or coordinated. But I digress.) My daughter lacked any serious motivation or commitment to her classes, and it is clear to me that she is not a prodigy at anything we have tried yet. That is fine with us. She will likely begin piano lessons soon, and I’m sure she will participate in music ensembles when she is older.

I think about our family, my daughter’s unique temperament and sensitivity, and it is clear to me that we all benefit by seriously limiting our after-school activities. But am I missing the boat by being lackadaisical about her Competitive Kid Capital? Am I failing to prepare her for college admissions and her future career? Am I (shudder) being a lazy parent?

We have one more discussion on Playing to Win at the end of October. I have not yet finished the book, and I am eager to find what the ultimate take-away message will be for me as a mother of an elementary school child. Should I be pushing harder? Is it really necessary for me to consider the skills she is lacking because of our haphazard leisure opportunities? Or perhaps we are simply enjoying her childhood, and savoring the years in which she gets the luxury of postponing a sense of planning and pressure. Perhaps, for now, she is just playing for fun.

Not a soccer prodigy, but a good sport.

Not a soccer prodigy, but a good sport.


Don’t forget to read the other fantastic posts in our discussion today:

From School of Smock:In Praise of Parenting…Like a Sociologist?
From Left Brain Buddha: The I.V. League? Being Mindful of Why We Compete
From Omnimom: Playing to Play (And Not To Get Into College)
From Urban Moo Cow:How Harmful is a Culture of Winning At All Costs?

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