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book spotlight: playing to win by hilary levey friedman

Friedman

Guest blogger emeritus Hilary Levey Friedman has just released her new book, Playing to Win, which is a thoughtful account of competitive children’s activities. Drawing from fieldwork done in three competitive youth circuits (chess, dance, soccer), Hilary provides us with an engaging treatment of the topic. She raises important questions about how we’ve reshaped childhood in response to the growing importance of higher education for young adults.

The core strength of the book is that it successfully explains how two organizational fields – higher education and children’s leisure – collide. Since colleges are the “key” for mobility, we recreate childhood in ways that reproduce status via college entrance. Thus, the book is an extension of Bourdieu’s approach to stratification, as expressed through Lareau and her school. This attempt at social reproduction is seen when parents strategize about how much effort to expend and how these activities teach the right life lessons. And, of course, as with all good ethnography, there are lots of juicy bits, such as the discussion of female chess players, which is a great discussion of counter-signalling theory in childhood.

The biggest question I had when reading the book is “does it matter?” In the final chapter, Hilary alludes to arguments made by Dalton Conley (and myself, by the way) that the specific school doesn’t matter much.  In other words, if it doesn’t matter which college you go to, then why should you torture your kid with violin lessons so he’s get into Yale?

Even if I’m wrong, and there is an Ivy League treatment effect, it’s still puzzling. Higher education researchers know that only about 50 colleges in the United States are hard to get into (consistent admit rates below 50%). About 18  million people a year enroll in college, but very competitive schools like the Ivies and the public flagships account for a small fraction of that number. Being a chess champ may be helpful for the smartest kids who have a shot at an elite school but this whole scene is irrelevant for most people who are trying to get into college.

My guess is that parents probably know, on some level, that these activities usually have marginal effects on admission when compared to GPA or SATs, but they still want to show that they are invested in their children. And of course, many of this activities are enjoyable. So in many cases, no harm no foul. If you buy this argument, you can skip soccer camp with a clean conscience.

Overall, great job and a pleasure to read. Recommended!

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Written by fabiorojas

August 26, 2013 at 12:11 am

15 Responses

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  1. I haven’t read the book so perhaps this is addressed, but one of the other functions of children’s “enrichment” activities is to provide after-school care for kids in dual-career families or single-parent families in which the parent works full-time. (And, of course, in families that are well-off enough to be able to afford the enrichment activities.) I suspect that if the US went to a 9-5 school day, the demand for children’s leisure goods and services would be much less robust.

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    krippendorf

    August 26, 2013 at 12:03 pm

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful review, Fabio!

    @krippendorf, in this case the answer is no as these competitive activities create more and not less work for the family (all outside of school and require transport to classes and tournaments/games/competitions). In fact, many of the activities presume that one parent does NOT work (take soccer clubs that schedule practice at 4 pm for grade school kids). This might be true for recreational activities, but not for those at the competitive level– though not even elite level– that are the focus in Playing to Win.

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    Hilary Levey Friedman

    August 26, 2013 at 2:27 pm

  3. The common argument that it doesn’t matter which college you go to may be misinterpretation of the original study:
    http://www.overcomingbias.com/2009/03/college-prestige-matters.html

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    Wonks Anonymous

    August 26, 2013 at 2:51 pm

  4. @ Wonks: I’ve read the original many times, and I agree with the author’s conclusion. Robin is wrong on this point.

    @krippendorf: Also, if it were glorified baby sitting, there wouldn’t be the need to build this elaborate system of rewards and rankings.

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    fabiorojas

    August 26, 2013 at 4:38 pm

  5. Devil’s advocate here. What if the competitive kid culture was actually a rational response to drastic changes in the U.S. labor market during the last 30 years or so? Tuition and healthcare, in constant dollars, are vastly more expensive; previously reliable white collar professions have either vanished wholesale (travel agent, journalist) or are in serious trouble (lawyer); and wages outside the financial services sector have gone more or less sideways. Higher costs, more debt, and fewer occupational opportunities mean that the margin of error for, well, life, is much narrower than it was even a generation ago. I don’t know if high-pressure chess competitions are the solution, but I am open to the idea that late 20th Century parenting patterns may no longer adequately prepare one for adult life at the dawn of the 21st Century.

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    haastalavista

    August 26, 2013 at 6:41 pm

  6. Mr. Devil’s advocate, you should definitely read the book. :) I argue a lot about the fact you can’t pass on credentials and credentials acquisition is harder than ever before. A lot is about concerns about upper-middle and middle class families downward mobility given economy, educational system, etc. And Chapter 1 is all about the historical development of these activities, tied especially to changes in the US educational system over the 20th century.

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    Hilary Levey Friedman

    August 26, 2013 at 6:46 pm

  7. Parents have always done things to “toughen up” their kids for adult life, but what I find interesting is the massive bureaucratization of leisure. Chess was always competitive. But dance? That’s worth talking about.

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    fabiorojas

    August 26, 2013 at 6:50 pm

  8. Sold – even in the absence of an E-reader version.

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    haastalavista

    August 26, 2013 at 6:51 pm

  9. @Fabio- Yes, but all the creative arts have seen this happen recently (though music comps are older), partly because of the need to create what Mitchell Stevens calls “measurable” value on college apps. Getting a painting prize, for example, shows you actually take painting seriously, etc.

    @Haasta, the UC Press site has an ereader version for sale, as does B&N for the Nook. No Kindle version up yet, but it should be soon.

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    Hilary Levey Friedman

    August 26, 2013 at 6:52 pm

  10. Sorry, fabio, I forgot you had commented on that before.

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    Wonks Anonymous

    August 26, 2013 at 11:59 pm

  11. […] I’ve been fortunate that this month, in the weeks leading up to today, that Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, has gotten some great coverage in print (Parents, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, and Canada’s National Post) and on the radio (like here, here, and here). I’m continuing to write as well, like this piece that went up today on my Playing to Win blog at Psychology Today: “Should Kids Diversify or Specialize After School?” (Spoiler alert: The answer is both since childhood is a buffet, but you have to get the timing right.) It’s even starting to get some reviews, like this one over at orgtheory. […]

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  12. Off-topic and revealing my ignorance, but: Why on Amazon do used copies start at nearly double the price of new, both hardcover and paperback? (Also, enter “Playing to Win” at Amazon, and you get a variety of books to choose from. Two of them, judging books by their covers, seem to be about abdominal muscles.)

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    Jay Livingston

    August 28, 2013 at 3:55 pm

  13. Jay, I was *completely* shocked by the black market for books– which makes no sense price-wise, as you say. I saw someone is selling a proof (which is illegal, but I get), but the upcharge on a “new/used” book is baffling.

    And the more people who search and buy for MY Playing to Win, the higher up it will appear when people search in the future. So, please, search (and buy) away. :)

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    Hilary Levey Friedman

    August 28, 2013 at 5:05 pm

  14. […] and losers is trickling down to the next generation.” The book also got some nice coverage on orgtheory, and I am extremely excited to reach a great group of parent readers through The Brilliant Book […]

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