The United States is frequently called a competitive country and many scholars assert that Americans live in a society focused on achievement (McClelland 1967). Weber argues that in a bureaucratic society social prestige and status are based upon educational credentials; as a consequence, performance on examinations and possession of degrees from particular institutions became centrally important (1978, 999-1000). The need to perform well in school and to compete in order to secure a spot when only a limited number are available thus becomes a high priority. Scholars like Collins (1979) and English (2005) explain how this increasingly competitive environment has affected various realms in contemporary America?including higher education, the corporate world, and culture?as the focus on credentials becomes ever more dominant.
Such competitive tournaments 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.
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 (for examples see Carroll 2005 and Fortin 2008). But are these parents crazy? Have they lost their grip? 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.
Parental concern over future academic options for their children may seem absurd since Baby Boomers and "Echo" Boomers are thus far the best-educated and wealthiest generations ever seen in the US. But Baby Boomers also faced unusual levels of competition for scarce educational resources due both to their numbers and their coming of age when many, including women, first entered college in a significant way (Easterlin 1987, 30). Hence the cultural experience of competition, of an insufficient supply of spots for the size of the group seeking them, has predisposed these Boomers to see life as a series of contests (Newman 1994). Their children's cohort?the echo boom?is large and has a higher rate of college attendance, so the competitive landscape is even more crowded. Popular press coverage of the low college acceptance rates, lower than ever of late at elite universities, only fuels parents' anxiety, reinforcing the competitive culture (for example, Parker-Pope 2008).
The Race toward College Admissions
Parents are working early on to ensure their children will attain credentials so that they get into good colleges and pursue advanced degrees, as a protection against downward mobility. The degree of instability that has become an unwelcome staple in the lives of millions of educated, professional workers has reinforced the importance of educational prestige as perhaps the only protection, dicey as it may be, against insecurity (for example, Warren and Tyagi, 2003).
Participation in competitive activities is particularly appealing in honing skills that will matter in the more weighty tournaments to come because these proving grounds look like recreation. While many Asian parents encourage their kids to spend countless hours hitting the books in English schools abroad or in cram schools at home (for example Onishi 2008 and Dunn 1995), many American parents prefer to shroud the honing process in activities that can be?and are generally experienced as?fun. It is crucial to the American ethos of competition that it should not look too much like work, especially for children, an argument I make in a recent article, which examines both child beauty pageants and Kumon afterschool learning centers (Levey 2009).
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. What does that kind of character lead to in adolescence? The answer is advantages in the long march to college admission (Kaufman and Gabler 2004) and the good life that comes after obtaining that college degree.
But were parents to think in directly instrumental terms about that thick admissions envelope, they would not be far off the mark: activity participation, particularly athletics, does confer an admissions advantage (Golden 2006). That U.S. colleges and universities consider admissions categories other than academic merit is rooted in history and is uniquely American. Jerome Karabel shows how the "Big Three" of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale developed new admissions criteria in the 1920s to keep out "undesirables," like Jews and immigrants (2006). This new system valued the "all-around man," who was naturally involved in clubs and athletics. Karabel explains that the definition of admissions merit has continued to shift over time and parents' concern with college admissions for their children is:
...not irrational, especially in a society in which the acquisition of educational credentials has taken its place alongside the direct inheritance of property as a major vehicle for the transmission of privilege from parent to child. And as the gap between winners and losers in American grows ever wider?as it has since the early 1970s?the desire to gain every possible edge has only grown stronger (2006, 3).
Of course in claiming that the parents I met are looking to create a certain kind of character, I do not mean to suggest that they never think about the end game. My interviews make it clear that they do give thought to the long run and hope that participation in competitive activities in elementary school will help give their children an edge. This is consistent with Mitchell Steven's work on elite college admissions, in which he argues that "families fashion an entire way of life organized around the production of measurable virtue in children" (Stevens 2007, 15).
Studying Families and Competition
Let me now tell you more about how I met these parents and about the research design. Children's competitive activities can be classified into one of the following types?athletic, artistic, or academic?and my case studies consist of one of each?soccer, dance, and chess respectively. As one of the most popular youth team sports, with over 3 million children registered each year by US Youth Soccer, soccer was a natural choice. Competitive dance has also grown by leaps and bounds, especially since the rebirth of dance on television with shows like So You Think You Can Dance. A 2004 New York Times article reported that there are tens of thousands of participants who enter dozens of competitions across the country (Kinetz 2004), representing one of the 14,500 dance studios in the United States. Finally, thousands of elementary school-age students sign up for chess tournaments nationwide each year. In the past decade scholastic membership in the United States Chess Federation has nearly doubled in size (Heisman 2202, 4), now accounting for a little more than half of all memberships, or about 40,000 kids.
For each activity I had two fieldsites?one urban and one suburban?around a major Northeastern city in the United States. The purpose of having a multi-site ethnography was two-fold: first, to meet a range of people with varied experiences to ensure breadth within the sample; and second, to test the validity of responses across sites. The initial fieldsites were selected after consultation with experts in each activity; I expanded to additional sites after gaining knowledge from these initial interviews.
Both chess sites, Metro Chess and West County Chess, have organizations that offer group classes, private lessons, chess camps, and regular chess tournaments?but Metro Chess is far more competitive, serious, and developed than West County Chess. My dance fieldsites, Metroville Elite Dance Academy and Westbrook Let's Dance Studio, follow a similar pattern, as the Elite Dance Academy is in an urban setting and is much more competitive than the Let's Dance Studio in the suburbs. Finally, I have the Westfield Soccer Club and the Metro Soccer Co-op, with the former being in a suburban location and highly competitive and the latter being in an urban setting with a greater emphasis on cooperation than competition. Both organize competitive, "travel" soccer teams that play in various soccer leagues and travel to tournaments.
I engaged in six to nine months of intensive observation with each activity, talking informally with those involved, attending tournaments, and taking extensive fieldnotes from 2006-7. During that time I conducted a series of semi-structured interviews with the parents, coaches, and children I met. I completed 172 interviews: 95 of those were with parents, 37 with children, and the rest with teachers, coaches, and administrators. All of the families I met had primary school-age children (between the ages of six and twelve) who were associated with chess, dance, or soccer.
Overcoming Credentials Bottlenecks?the Acquisition of a Competitive Habitus
In analyzing these data, I draw upon Bordieu's concept of the habitus, defined as a system of dispositions that manifest in various types of taste like speech and dressing (Bourdieu 2007). I label the lessons and skills children gain from participating in competitive activities the competitive habitus. The character associated with this habitus that parents want their children to develop is based on the acquisition of five skills and lessons, which ultimately shape children's daily lives and futures.
Internalizing the importance of winning is the primary goal of the competitive habitus. Competitive children's activities reinforce winning, often at the expense of anything else?including the learning process?by awarding trophies and other prizes. Such an attitude brings success in the college admissions process and in other educational settings (Attewell 2001), along with other winner-take-all settings (Frank and Cook 1995). Though many activities do award participation trophies, especially to younger children, the focus remains on who wins the biggest trophy and most important title.
The second component of the competitive habitus is learning from a loss to win in the future. This skill involves perseverance and focus, and sometimes sportsmanship, but the emphasis is on how to bounce back from a loss to win the next time. Many adults explain this aspect of the competitive habitus in stock expressions, or what Charles Tilly refers to as "conventions" (Tilly 2006). These conventions are reflected in trite phrases such as "he has to learn how to pick himself up and get back in the game."
The next two elements of the competitive habitus can also be summarized in conventional expressions, such as "she has to learn how to perform under time pressure," or "he must tune everything else out." Learning how to succeed given time limits is a critical skill. There are time limits for games, tournaments, and routines?and the competition schedule is also demanding, squeezing many events into a weekend or short week. Parents often link learning how to perform under time constraints to future challenges related to higher education, including "the big test" (Lemann 2000), and other standardized test like the SAT, but also extending to every midterm or final exam their children will ever face. Children also learn how to perform and compete in environments that require adaptation. The competition environment may be louder, more distracting, colder, larger or smaller than anticipated in preparations, but competitors, and especially winners, learn how to adapt. The adaptation requires focus on the part of children?the capacity to focus only on their performance and eventual success.
In this pressure-filled competitive environment, children's performances are judged and assessed according to a set standard and in comparison to others. Children are ranked, both in relation to others' performance in a particular competition, and in relation to other participants their age in the activity. These appraisals are public, as opposed to standardized tests which take place anonymously and privately. Being able to perform under the gaze of others?the final component of the competitive habitus?toughens a child to shield his feelings of disappointment or elation, to present him/herself as a competent and confident competitor.
Given parents' focus on children's long-term achievement, at heart this is a story about social reproduction, or how parental decisions for their children help reproduce the class structure across generations. Traditionally in sociology this question is approached from the bottom up, but this work shows that it is equally important to train the sociological lens on the upper portion of the class structure and ask how parents and their children learn to stay there.
Dalton Conley, in his recent work on contemporary American families, argues that parents push their kids to excel in various ways because, "The stakes for parents are high?kids, after all reflect our class status more than any other marker" (Conley 2009, 154). In pursuit of status many parents push their kids to acquire the competitive habitus I have just described, molding their children's minds, bodies, language, and other attributes. Parents think that these attributes indicate to others that their children are confident competitors, which also helps prepare the kids to navigate their way to the top of credentials bottlenecks, and to secure their family's class position in the future.
One of the things these competitive kids learn is that failure is not an option and "losers" are looked down upon in American society. Historian Scott Sandage, in his account of failure in the United Status in the nineteenth century, explains that low ambition and drive offends the American sensibility. Of course, the chances of being a loser rather than a winner are higher than ever?especially in the context of the 2008-9 turbulent economy that has seen families lose jobs and investments (including children's college funds).
A common refrain during this recession is that the middle class is in peril, on the edge of a precipice. And, on the one hand, I agree. Families certainly face real material constraints. However, the middle class as an idea in America, predicated on individual agency, education, and hard work, remains stronger than ever. The establishment of organizations that create, support, and maintain competitive children's activities is one piece of evidence that illustrates the complex ways in which children are socialized to their class positions. What is more troubling is that, for the most part, access to these activities remains stratified by children's class positions.
Additionally, we simply do not know what the long-term psychological effects of all those competition in early childhood will be. What happens to these children in middle school, high school, and beyond? Do they burn-out from their competitive activities, their school work, or both? Are there other psychological repercussions?
It is unrealistic to expect participation in competitive children's activities to stop, unless everyone in a birth year agreed to stop together or all colleges and universities declare that test scores will be the only admissions criteria. Just how much more ratcheting up of competitive pressure will occur, and how much younger the age of competitors will go, remains to be seen. But so long as winning remains important in American culture, playing to win will remain a central focus of many American childhoods.
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