Thursday, September 12, 2013

Hilary Levey Friedman's "Playing to Win"

Hilary Levey Friedman is a Harvard sociologist and expert on popular culture encompassing childhood and parenting, competitive afterschool activities, beauty pageants, reality TV, education and more.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, and reported the following:
I was excited to turn to page 99 of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture to see what I wrote—and I was pleasantly surprised that the page captures one of the central ideas in the book! Playing to Win is based on my research with 95 families with elementary school-age children involved in competitive chess, dance, and soccer.

Over six chapters I explore why parents want their children to participate in these competitive afterschool activities (one of the major focuses is gaining admission to an elite college or university in the future). I label the lessons and skills that parents hope their children gain from participating in competitive activities “competitive kid capital.” The character associated with this competitive kid capital that parents want their children to develop is based on the acquisition of five skills and lessons, which emerged in conversations with parents: (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, and (5) being able to perform under the gaze of others.

Each chapter answers some overarching questions: Why have these competitive activities developed over time? How is the competition structured now, and in each research site? Why do parents believe these competitive activities and competitive kid capital to be so important in their children’s lives? How do parents make decisions about the specific competitive activities for their children? In what ways is there an industry behind these organized competitive activities? What do the children think about their participation in these competitive activities?

Page 99 appears in Chapter 3, “Cultivating Competitive Kid Capital: Generalist and Specialist Parents Speak” and it details the second part of Competitive Kid Capital—bouncing back from a loss to win in the future. The first quote on the page is one I often use in talks as it really captures the difficult, long-term futures Playing to Win parents envision for their kids.
Other parents expressed similar sentiments about the importance of learning about hard work and loss in childhood, highlighting the unpredictable nature of life: “The winning and losing is phenomenal. I wish it was something that I learned because life is really bumpy. You’re not going to win all the time and you have to be able to reach inside and come back. Come back and start fresh and they are able to. I’m not saying he doesn’t cry once in a while. But it’s really such a fantastic skill.”
The rest of Page 99 in its entirety:
Parents value these life lessons about persistence because of the way they view American society. Every single parent I interviewed stated that they find American society to be competitive. One dance mom exclaimed, “Hell, yeah, America is competitive! But the beauty of it is, if you’re mentally strong and if you’re prepared and if you are open to possibility, I think you can create your own destiny, whatever it is.”

Another mother and I talked about her views of this competitive society and how perseverance in competitive dance can help in the long term:
Mom: Academically, they’re so much more advanced than we were and that’s better as far as what they can do with their lives. I think it has gotten much better as opposed to what we, you know compared to when I grew up, there are more opportunities. But it’s hard. It’s a competitive world, you know? It’s a lot, it’s hard for them.

Hilary: Do you see dance fitting into helping her navigate that competitive world?

Mom: You know what, I think it helps with rejection, it helps with being able to handle it. You know she wants to compete in jazz. Well, if you want to compete in jazz you have to try even harder. I feel it teaches her that being able to handle the idea that, like, well she’s [another girl] is better than you. And there’s no question about it, so another girl is going to move on and you’re not. I think that kind of helps, you know? She learns not everything comes easy and you’re not going to always get what you might want, or maybe even you’re not trying hard enough.
Learn more about the book and author at Hilary Levey Friedman's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue