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Guest Blogger Hilary Levey: Playing to Win (and for college admissions!) — In First Grade

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Hilary Levey is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at Princeton University. Below, she shares findings from her dissertation, "Playing to Win: Childhood, Competition, and the Credentials Bottleneck."

Many parents work more hours outside of the home and their lives are crowded with more obligations than ever before; many children spend their evenings and weekends trying out for all-star teams, travelling to tournaments, and eating dinner in the car. What explains the increase in children’s participation in activities outside of the home, structured and monitored by their parents, when family time is so scarce? As the parental “second shift” continues to grow, alongside it a second shift for children has emerged — especially amongst the middle- and upper-middle classes — which is suffused with competition rather than mere participation. What motivates these particular parents to get their children involved in competitive activities?

Using evidence from three case studies (one academic, chess; one artistic, dance; and one athletic, soccer) drawn from 16 months of fieldwork, and 172 interviews — with 95 parents of elementary school-children, 37 of those elementary school-age children, and 40 teachers and coaches — I argue in my dissertation, Playing to Win, that the extensive time devoted to competition is driven by parents’ demand for credentials for their children, which they see as a necessary and often sufficient condition for entry into the upper-middle class and the good life that accompanies it. At the same time, of course, this new form of early competition reinforces a “less than level” playing field among children, in terms of class and gender.

That American families are busy is not surprising, especially to those who study family life and those who live it. But it’s not just that middle class kids spend their time in organized activities. What is critical, and rarely discussed, is the competitive nature of their extra-curricular lives. Many activities that were previously non-competitive have been transformed from environments that only emphasized learning skills, personal growth, and simple fun to competitive cauldrons in which only a few succeed.

Such competitive experiences were once limited to high school. Students entered athletic contests, joined debate teams, built “careers” as high school newspaper editors, and in hundreds of other ways sought to distinguish themselves in adolescence. For millions of middle class American children today, waiting until high school to prove one’s mettle would be a big mistake. The bottlenecks these kids worry about and will face require much more advanced preparation. Even the preschool set is busily trying to stand out from the crowd!

It is tempting to denounce these preoccupations as the hyper-fixation of neurotic parents who are living through their children, and many pundits are not shy about invoking analyses that are just shy of pathology. These parents are labeled helicopter parents who hover over their kids from infancy through college graduation, even until children secure employment after college. But are these parents crazy? No. Their children face very real bottlenecks through which they need to pass if they are going to achieve in ways similar to their parents. And the probability of that outcome appears to their parents — with good reason — to be less than it once was.

At the same time it would be a mistake to think that parents of kids as young as seven fixate on college admissions offices every Saturday out on the soccer field. Instead, they understand the grooming of their child as producing a certain kind of character and a track record of success in the more proximate tournaments of sports or dance or chess. (But were parents to think in directly instrumental terms about a thick admissions envelope, they would not be far off the mark: activity participation, particularly athletics, does confer admissions advantages, either through athletic scholarships or an admissions “boost,” giving students an edge when applying to elite schools.) These competitive activities are seen by many parents as the essential proving ground that will clear their children’s paths to the Ivy League because they help children acquire skills and focus their time and energy.

Playing to Win illustrates the ways in which competition is now a central aspect of American childhood for many, showing that countless boys and girls no longer simply play — they play to win.
22 Comments

Hilary,

Surely you've seen and read Labaree's stuff (AERA Journal, Spring 1997) on education as a a private good vs as a public good. I read that he argues that middle class parents in particular view credentials as important to their children's future success, and that more than preparation for entry to the work force, or preparation for participation in a democratic society, it is this that they seek from the school system. Thus the traveling hockey team and swim practice at 5:30 am. And test prep.

That the phenomena exists is painfully obvious to middle class parents (and others, I am sure). The $64,000 question for the nation's best and brightest academics is what solutions can one recommend to politicians and education administrators that will lessen or dull this impact?

I've seen in the NYT recently that Harvard admissions was making noises about relying less on the SAT, and here in NYC principals at "selective" middle schools say they only rely to a "small extent" on scores on state exams in judging applicants. I fear however this creates even greater pressure to distinguish one's child by means of extraordinary extra curricular participation in sports, etc.?

Perhaps no easy answers, but certainly worth a try.

Matthew

As a junior at NYU, I have faced this very issue. When is enough, enough? Many of my friends were involved in countless activities; many at the request of their parents hoping to impress a coach for scholarship purposes. I feel the main reason for this competition is fear of failure and the complexity of our lives in general. Parents feel they need to involve themselves because many of the things students are asked to do are not things a seventeen year old is capable of doing. At seventeen, our minds are pre-occupied with teenage issues, not adult issues.
I think part of blame rests with colleges who rely heavily on test scores and a list of activities to determine who they will or will not accept.
I recently Co-Founded a web based college search site that allows students to show colleges what they are about outside of their grades. Perhaps the most important part of the site is not the student profile, but the input provided by the teachers and parents. Colleges need to learn as much about a student as possible if they truly want to accept students that are a good fit. A list of activities and grades is a poor substitute for getting to know an applicant. I hope you will share this information with your readers. The site is: http://www.morethangrades.com

With a bright, capable, 12 year old who is completely uninterested in competitive activities, this is a world I'm surrounded by (though probably less than if we lived in NY) but not really participating in, and I find I don't really understand it.

On the one hand I worry -- my husband and I have 3 Ivy League degrees between us, and our education has certainly been good to us. But on the other hand, how many doors will really be closed to my daughter if she goes to a UC school instead of Harvard or Princeton?

Looking at her peers who do more of the competitive, credential-oriented activities, the thing that worries me is that the take-away lesson for the kids is that the most important thing is some official stamp of approval for their work. And where does that leave them as an adult? Do they find themselves having trouble being happy in their work for its own sake, and needing to constantly strive for the next salary increase or promotion?

I could be adding stress to my life (and my daughter's) by pressuring her to take chess or music "more seriously." But my sense is that it would risk ruining those as fun lifetime activities for very little purpose, and that in the end, for her at least, exploring a variety of activities and figuring out what her interests and talents are, is more likely to lead her to a satisfying career than a few high school chess or music awards.

Am I naive?

Interestingly, as I observed my friends and relatives mature over the years, it was not always those people with the best credentials who became the most successful. Qualities that matter in the real world include friendliness, leadership ability, dedication, loyalty and perseversence. Many times I saw the friendly, well-rounded B-student achieve more professional and personal success than the driven A+ student. Children today should understand that it's not necessary to attend the "best" university or have the most extra curriculars in order to have a fulfilling and successful life.

A couple of years ago I was talking to some middle school students involved in the "Future Problem Solvers" program. I asked what they liked best and each and every one said "winning" or "beating the other team." Even when pushed for more this was the answer they gave, although a couple did mention travel.

My first thought was that the future and problem solving were in trouble.

Our son did not enroll in the program.

Interesting research, and a worthy topic of study certainly. One line, however, made my eyebrows shoot northward. You mentioned how parents see their children's credentials as "necessary and often sufficient condition for entry into the upper-middle class and the good life that accompanies it." This is purely anecdotal, but I've always found the credential-happy parent is most typically not aspiring to the upper middle class, but firmly entrenched within it.

This is purely anecdotal, but I've always found the credential-happy parent is most typically not aspiring to the upper middle class, but firmly entrenched within it.

That's an interesting point. But I think they are parents who worry that if they don't provide all the right opportunities for their kids, their kids will fall backwards, and that the status differential between upper-middle class and ordinary-middle class matters to them a great deal.

You can lay almost the blame for the entire credentialing phenomena at the feet of Griggs vs. Duke Power, the ill-reasoned Supreme Court decision that launched credential mania.

Repeal this ill-reasoned decision and the pressure for credentialism will decrease.

And the probability of that outcome appears to their parents — with good reason — to be less than it once was.

Your use of the phrase "with good reason" leads me to ask what you think the reasons are. What I see is parents worrying about are the efforts designed to hinder the talented and/or hard working so that the unqualified candidates who are minorities are given a boost in order to create an equal outcome environment. I'd venture that if you asked most parents whether they thought that their children could succeed on their own merits, that most parents would answer in the affirmative. However, when they see a rigged competition in store for their children, then they feel that they need to pay to play.

These competitive activities are seen by many parents as the essential proving ground that will clear their children’s paths to the Ivy League because they help children acquire skills and focus their time and energy.

I disagree with this perspective. Every choice one makes comes with an opportunity cost. Children who prove themselves in one arena are denied the chance to prove themselves in another arena.

I've seen in the NYT recently that Harvard admissions was making noises about relying less on the SAT, and here in NYC principals at "selective" middle schools say they only rely to a "small extent" on scores on state exams in judging applicants.

This has less to do with lessening the competitive landscape for admissions and more to do with giving the administrators a freer hand to select minorities for admission to the schools.

Arghh. Don't type and talk on the phone at the same time. Sorry to all for the grammatical errors in the above responses.

This unhealthy emphasis on competition and external markers of achievement (GPA, test scores, honors & awards, admission to the "right" schools) in our social circle is actually a major reason why we've chosen to homeschool.

My 6 year old has a number of little friends who've be enrolled in "drill-and-kill" Jr. Kumon tutoring since before they were out of Pull-Ups in an attempt to "get ahead" :-(

Where is the evidence that this kind of parental pressure from an extremely young age actually leads to success as an adult rather than causing the child to "burn out"?

Crimson Wife: I agree. As I posted above, I haven't seen much evidence in my adult life that straight-A students necessarily become very successful in their careers. In fact, it seems that being well-rounded (including have good perspective, being friendly, exhibiting a good attitude, etc.) make more of a difference in ultimate success, in both career and personal life.

I've known quite a few very successful former straight-A students -- but many in many of them I see a striving for continued recognition and positive feed back. Just "being successful" as an adult, in the sense of having interesting work that pays a comfortable salary -- doesn't seem to be enough.

I would be interested to hear what role readers think race has played in the "credential" race in middle class families.

Could it be that if you are a white middle class Christian (and goodness forbid you are also male), you face an uphill battle because of our culture's false sense of that group's previous entitlements--which forces members of that group to "prove" worth in cut-throat admissions processes?


I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Deborah

http://termlifeinsurance2.com

I would be interested to hear what role readers think race has played in the "credential" race in middle class families.

This is the primary factor behind the credential race:

As such, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment tests (when used as a decisive factor in employment decisions) that are not a "reasonable measure of job performance," regardless of the absence of actual intent to discriminate.

Employers protect themselves by relying on credentials and the quality of the credentials. We know from labor economics literature that employers are actively rewarding cognitive skills. They can't directly measure cognitive skills of applicants, so credentials are the next best thing.

TangoMan and SK,

Just on the numbers, I am going to have to disagree here. Even in the absence of affirmative action, the probability of any student (white, male, or otherwise) gaining admission to an Ivy League university is incredibly low.

The issue is similar to handicapped parking spaces. Everyone thinks that the space would be open - and s/he would already be parked - if it wasn't reserved. In truth, someone else's car would already be occupying that spot. If parents think that affirmative action is denying their kid's admissions seat, they are making the same kind of miscalculation.

Just on the numbers, I am going to have to disagree here. Even in the absence of affirmative action, the probability of any student (white, male, or otherwise) gaining admission to an Ivy League university is incredibly low.

That's an interesting tangent but not really the issue we're discussing.

1.) Affirmative Action doesn't really have much to do with the rise of credentialism. In fact, it can be looked at as a way to address some of the negative effects created by credentialism that fall on minority commumities.

2.) To the issue that you raise, we're dealing with a misallocation problem. The student applying to Harvard who isn't admitted because a less qualified minority is admitted in his stead is a.) drawn from a smaller pool than "any student" and b.) in the aggregate, if 15% of admitted students are being admitted through AA action policies, that means that 15% of rejected students would have been admitted in their place. The schools into which those 15% of students were admitted, presumably schools of lower reputation, would now be able to admit other students in their place.

The misallocation of resources, in this case admission letters, still exists as a problem for society. You're right that there are more rejected students from Harvard than there are admitted minority students who are there due to affirmative action policies. However, the number of rejected students would be fewer without the presence of AA.

So, the rise of credentialism is a problem in that we see society misallocating economic and human resources in order to comply with laws that are ill-reasoned.

The dissertation’s argument that children’s activities are increasingly competitive because college admissions has become so competitive ignores other possibilities, including (1) The general rise of a competitive culture evidenced by Survivor-style reality shows and the “Who’s up? Who’s down?” approach to election coverage, and (2) The advent of YouTube, which has made it easier to capture, preserve, and gloat over great moments in youth basketball or dance in ways never done before. Also, I question whether the author is imagining a golden age of non-competitive extracurricular activities that never existed, as children by nature are competitive, and all I can recall about my youth recreational soccer experience is being picked last (or sometimes next-to-last). I’m not convinced of the dissertation’s arguments as presented in this brief summary, though I agree that competition at an elementary school level is a nasty and hurtful thing, and I think that directing attention at its consequences is important.

i love reading your blog whenever i can, i dont often get the time these days, but usually have a quick read in my dinner break or just after i get home from work, sometimes its quite interesting reading - thanks.

im still paying off my loan for my education, it never seems to end, i will never know if it was worthwhile because there just arent the jobs to apply for anyway.

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