Mark Steed's Reviews > Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture

Playing to Win by Hilary Levey Friedman
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it was ok
bookshelves: competition, parenting, sociology, sport, tiger-mother

I bought this book on the back of a Harvard Business Review Blog article by the author believing it to be a research study into the relationship between competitive sport/ activities and future university and career success. Sadly, despite this being the thrust both of the HBR article and of the book's Preface, this is not the core of its thesis. Rather, Playing to Win is a sociological study of American parenting - focusing on how and why (middle class) parents are devoting increasing amounts of time and money to taking their Elementary school aged children (age 5-8) to after-school competitive activities. It describes how parents think and behave and seeks to unpack their motivations and aspirations.
The field research was clearly a significant undertaking for one person. The study, which was conducted over sixteen months, took a "deep dive" into three different competitive fields (soccer, dance and chess) with six to nine months devoted to each field. It considered the parents of 86 children;in two areas, one urban ("Metro") and the other suburban ("West County"). The primary source of information was 172 "semi-informal" interviews (95 of which were with parents).
Hilary Levey Friedman's thesis is an interesting one
'I argue 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 this. I develop the concept of "Competitive Kid Capital" to explore the ways in which winning has become central to the lives of American children." (p.3)
'I argue that it is this organised, competitive element, outside of the home, that is key to understanding middle- and upper-middle-class family life. Parents worry that if their children do not participate in childhood tournaments they will fall behind in the tournament of life. Whilst it's not clear if the parents are correct, what matters is that they believe that they are and act accordingly. Their beliefs about the future shape their actions in the present when it comes to their children's competitive after-school activities.' (p.8)
"Competitive Kid Capital"
Hilary Levey Friedman identifies five reasons why parents believe that competitive activities are important for young children - she terms these benefits "competitive Kid Capital":
This Sport internalizes the importance of winning;
Sport helps young people to learn how to bounce back from a loss to win in the future;
Sport teaches the importance of performing within time limits;
Sport helps young people to learn how to succeed in stressful situations;
Sport teaches the importance of being able to perform under the gaze of others.
Hilary Levey Friedman's has excellent academic credentials (Harvard-Princeton-Harvard) and it is no surprise that the book is structured like a serious piece of sociological research (in the "say what you are going to say", "say it", "say what you said" style). The author has command of the relevant literature and studies - it goes without saying that the noting, referencing and indexing are immaculate. However, it falls short in two respects. First, the author has not yet mastered an engaging popular writing style (typified by Gladwell and Pink) and drifts from argument into anecdote and, at times, into a stream of consciousness (e.g. in the mis-named Conclusion, which degenerates into the author's personal reflections on the broad theme of parenting). Secondly, the field research on which this book draws was on such a small scale that it is very difficult to draw any wider conclusions with any degree of certainty.
What disappointed me most was that the book set out to answer the question, 'Why do so many families spend their weekends watching their children compete?' (p.3) but ended devoting so much space simply to documenting and describing the micro-societies that are the world of the out-of-school chess/ dance/ soccer parent. Consequently, I found myself wanting to write "Don't narrate, argue" in the margin for large parts of book (it took me back to the days of marking C grade A-level essays!). For this reason, the best parts of the book were undoubtedly the Preface and the Introduction, where Hilary Levey Friedman outlined (and argued) her central thesis - these are well worth a read.
Those of us who work in schools are only too aware that young people in the UK already are engaged in many more activities that were those of us of the parent generation and that competitive parenting increases the closer to London that one travels. Playing to win serves as a timely reminder that things are only likely to get worse.
As a parent, I am relieved that the lion share of my children's activities have been provided by the school 'as part of the package'. One of the great benefits of the independent sector is that so many after-school and holiday actives are provided by the school which extend and develop young people. Furthermore there are many opportunities to compete in a whole range of areas. In short, "Competitive Kid Capital" comes as standard.
(I would not have finished reading this book or even bothered to write this review had I not been trapped on a plane with a faulty media system for seven hours!)

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
April 1, 2016 – Shelved
April 1, 2016 – Shelved as: competition
April 1, 2016 – Shelved as: parenting
April 1, 2016 – Shelved as: sociology
April 1, 2016 – Shelved as: sport
April 1, 2016 – Shelved as: tiger-mother

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