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If you are interested in after-school activities and the future prospects of the children who participate in them, Playing to Win by Hilary Levey Friedman is a must-read. An astute, well-researched and clearly written account, the book examines the ins and outs of today’s competitive youth culture across three different arenas: chess, soccer and dance. It is not, however, a documentation of the lives of rising Grand Masters and Broadway stars in the making. It is a tour of the psychological landscape of middle-class American parenting, as it relates to the ever-present push to create the most “successful” kid possible.
The premise of the book is that parents believe children need something Levey Friedman describes as “Competitive Kid Capital” in order to achieve the “good life.” And that extracurricular activities are the way, par excellence, to accrue it. The process of acquiring Competitive Kid Capital, which includes qualities such as internalizing the value of winning and learning how to perform in stressful situations, starts young: we are talking about elementary-school-aged children. It is also directly linked to competitive (as opposed to recreational) ventures, where scores are kept, rankings are obsessed over and trophies are doled out one after the next.
Playing to Win is, at heart, a sociological study. It is a laying bare of a cultural phenomenon—its history and its infrastructure—not a judgment on that phenomenon. “Are these parents crazy?” Levey Friedman asks. “Have they lost their grip?” Her definitive answer to these questions is “no” and she walks the line between showing us why and telling us why with admirable grace. On the one hand, she lets the data and the people involved speak for themselves: interviews with both parents and children are a hallmark of the book. On the other hand, she is a careful, explicit and non-biased interpreter of her fieldwork.
The chapter on gender, one of the strongest, provides a good example of this balanced presentation. Here Levey Friedman tackles the influence of sex, and also of class, on a parent’s decision to enroll a child in a particular activity. Upper-middle-class parents, she notices, are more likely to promote an “assertive type of femininity” and so choose soccer for their daughters, whereas lower-middle-class parents are likely to favor a “more traditional type” of femininity and choose dance. So too girls are far more likely than boys to take dance classes at all. These trends are outlined with no aspersions cast and with ample opportunity to hear the parents’ own voices.
One of the major themes weaving through Playing to Win is the perceived relationship between competitive after-school activities and college admissions. The US is unique in nurturing such a connection, as it is one of the only countries to “consider admissions categories other than academic merit.” For American parents, therefore, the drive for their children to participate increasingly in these ventures (“to beef up their resumes,” as the dean of admissions at Harvard has put it) is an extension of the desire to get them into the best college possible, which is often narrowly construed as the elite universities of the Ivy League. And yet, in the end, Levey Friedman acknowledges that “we don’t know conclusively that the activities that fill the leisure time of affluent American children are central to maintaining an advantage for these kids into adulthood.”
Playing to Win will leave you ambivalent, just like the parents it chronicles, who seesaw between “the ‘need’ to keep up and their exhaustion from trying to keep up.” It will make you question where you fall on the spectrum of competitiveness for your children, both in terms of the activities they take part in and the process of getting them into college. You will recognize the potential benefits these activities bestow, the confidence, the resilience, the self-regulation. But you will also probably lament the fact that America has gotten to a point where eight year olds are spending hour upon hour of their “free” time honing skills so they can win at sports we used to play for fun. And when you close the book, you will either immediately sign your kid up for chess lessons. Or make plans to flee the country.
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