On Nov. 10, 2016, dozens of Brown students, faculty and staff gathered in the Barus Building to hear Hilary Levey Friedman, Visiting Assistant Professor in American Studies at Brown University, present "Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture" in the fourth installment of the Brown Education Department Fall 2016 Speaker Series.
Dr. Levey Friedman, whose presentation shared the title of a book she authored a book, has done extensive research on competitiveness among American children. She noted that in 1980, children had a roughly 90% likelihood of earning the same salary as their parents. By 2010, that number had plummeted to just 50%. People are responding pathologically to a fear of inequality, worried that their children won’t be as successful as they were. Thus, Levey Friedman has studied how “winning” has become central to many American children’s lives.
All of her data, Levey Friedman explained, is on elementary school children in the 5th grade or younger, and all on organized sports and activities run by adults. On a spectrum between “just for fun” and “training for the Olympics,” the groups in her data fell very slightly to the right of center; the parents didn’t want their kids to be professional players, but they did want them to succeed and win. Everyone was already involved in the activities when Levey Friedman began her field work.
In 2013, 7.7 million U.S. children were on high school sports teams. In soccer alone, there were 3 million kids between the ages of 5 and 19. Sports have become a part of middle class and upper middle class culture. 100 years ago, competitive sports would have been considered a staple of poor and immigrant families, while wealthier American children practiced non-competitive sports and activities such as dance and music.
Mandatory schooling laws during the 19th century planted seeds of competition, Levey Friedman stated, which brought about a social shift for kids. Sports leagues evolved, eventually coming into the spotlight. By 1910, many states featured sports clubs (although many closed during or immediately after the Depression). Then the YMCA shifted to a fee-based model, which spread across the country and remains today. In 1929, Pop Warner football was founded; in 1939, Little League was founded. Just ten years later, Little Leaguers played their first World Series, which shows how quickly the movement to competitiveness happened in the U.S. By 1959, there were 5,000 sports leagues, a model which became the norm for today’s Americans.
In the 1970s, California became the base for a self-esteem movement in schools that spread across the nation over the next decade. Physical education teachers helped push organized activities out of schools, which resulted in tying sports into the private sector. Pay-to-play sports became popular. By 2005, the number of national championships had grown from 100 to 250. The ages that a player could be a champion had also lowered across the nation, creating competitiveness at younger and younger ages.
College readiness also became a factor, as the more elite sports and activities were tied into admission practices. College admissions in the U.S., Levey Friedman noted, have had an interesting history. She cited Jerome Karabel’s book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton on how “the big three” kept out undesirable students, mainly the poor and the immigrant. The “all-around man” rose in admissions interviews, and it became important to be an athlete and to belong to clubs in order to attain quality higher education.
The three activities Levey Friedman focused on represented academic activities (chess, an individual activity, mainly populated by boys); artistic activities (dance, a solo or group sport, mainly populated by boys); and athletic activities (soccer, a team sport, played equally by boys and girls).
Competitive Kid Capital - Levey Friedman collected various quotes from kids and parents about their experiences with sports and analyzed the sports’ impact. She found that sports:
Internalize the importance of winning
Allow kids to bounce back from a loss to win again in the future (but, Friedman noted, also represent higher stakes, as scores and stats are usually public information)
Help kids learn how to perform in and adapt to stressful situations, and time pressure
Allow kids to perform under the public gaze of others
Gender Scripts in Sports
When asked how they chose these activities, parents differed in what they sought for their kids. Soccer parents wanted their girls to be more assertive and aggressive; dance parents wanted their girls to be more feminine and graceful. The dance environment was kinder and more supportive, with indirect competition and relational skills. Soccer taught kids to be forceful; it discouraged “girly girls.” Women who chase balls and score on a soccer field are metaphorically being trained to chasing and scoring other things in life. Chess is similar to soccer for girls; the girls learn to be aggressive when playing.
Skills learned by kids in sports and activities translate into job acquisition skills, Levey Friedman noted. Lauren Riviera’s Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs exposes how employers draw ideas about candidates’ talents based on their activities, sports, and social status. Levey Friedman shared a slide on how the parents she studied are grooming their children. For example, 52% of children who played chess had two parents who had earned graduate degrees; only 8% of children taking dance had two parents with graduate degrees. Chess parents thought of the game as a path towards success in higher education, while dance parents thought dancing well would help their daughters attract a mate and find success in marriage. Parents were feeling stress to help their kids succeed on a potentially unequal playing field and were enrolling them in activities on a path to attaining things they felt were important to them.
The Education Department thanks Dr. Levey Friedman and all the other presenters of the Fall 2016 Speaker Series for taking the time to present their research to the Brown community.