SPRAGGETT ON CHESS
A culture of overachievers
Dr. Hilary Levey speaks about a new brand of competitive children
By: Sarah Gilson
The bell rings at exactly 8:25 a.m. You scurry to class, where you do math and English exercises for about three hours. Then you take a 30-minute lunch break, immediately followed by three more hours of class. At exactly 2:50 p.m. your mother picks you up in her minivan (decked out with swiveling chairs and a DVD player) and takes you to activity number one: lacrosse practice. You spend a little over an hour there before your mother pulls up at 4:30 and dashes you off to the next activity: voice lesson. At 6, the lesson ends and your mother arrives. You have exactly 45 minutes of free time before you have to be at your dance class, so you pick up fast food and eat it while doing some of your homework in the car. At 6:45 you hop out of the car and head into dance class, which goes until 9 p.m. You get home by about 9:25, and you start doing about two hours worth of homework before finally passing out somewhere around 11:30. The next morning you wake up at 6:45 a.m. and do it all over again. Feeling tired yet? You are only eleven years old.
On Thursday, Jan. 28, Brandeis University’s Sociology department sponsored a talk by Dr. Hilary Levey. Levey, who earned a Ph.D. from Princeton and was a Robert Wood Johnson Scholar in Health Policy at Harvard University, spoke to members of the Brandeis Community about her dissertation: “Playing to Win: Childhood, Competition, and the Credentials Bottleneck.” The talk-the second one this year in a slew of talks from the department’s colloquia series-was held in Pearlman Lounge at 3 p.m.
Levey opened her talk with an amusing anecdote about the “Levy family,” an overachieving bunch who hail from Long Island, where the children partake in so many after-school activities they are actually pulled early from class to complete all of their extracurriculars. Essentially, the bulk of Levey’s work centers around this new subculture of children-and their parents- who focus so intensely on cultivating impressive résumés that their worlds revolve around participating in as many varied after-school activities as possible.
Three main case studies served as the foundation of her research: chess, dance and soccer, arguably three of the most popular after school activities for modern children. She did 172 interviews
with parents, elementary school-aged children and teachers and coaches in the course of her research, and she worked with 95 families.
Levey, who is a petite woman with a sunny disposition, introduced her research with the question “Why do so many families end up spending their afternoons and weekends as part of this mad dash? More specifically, why has this mad dash become so competitive?”
An explanation for this competitive culture, Levey rationalized, 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.”
Levey broke it down to three primary causes for this competitive culture. She described “busy-ness,” citing parents working outside the home more, children engaging in more activities and family life in general as being busier as contributing factors. Levey also discussed “competitiveness.” Over the years, she noted, there has progressively been an increase in “competitive spirit” integrated into children’s activities. No longer is the emphasis on “Everyone is a winner”-now it’s all about being the best, getting the largest trophy and standing out. “Crazy-ness” is a result of children competing at younger ages and helicopter parents-a term used to describe parents who smother their children and pay extremely close attention to their children’s lives.
In an effort to explain this trend and “to explore the ways in which winning has become central to the lives of American children,” Levey came up with the concept of the “competitive habitus.” Levey uses the habitus as an explanation “for the lessons and skills children gain from participating in competitive activities.” She narrowed the habitus down to five learned core lessons that differ from other activities due to their competitive nature: internalizing the importance of winning, bouncing back from a loss to win in the future, learning how to succeed given time limits, learning how to perform in stressful situations and being able to perform under the gaze of others.
Levey noted that for families with children like this, extracurriculars can cost upwards of “five figures a year,” which begs the question: how do parents rationalize their children’s excessive activities? Levey says that three “conventions” exist for parents in their efforts to explain why their children do so many activities. Parents will explain that their children actually really do like the activities, that children are inclined to participate more often because their friends are participating in the activities and that the activity itself will help their child (i.e. dance will keep their child fit and provide an outlet for excess energy).
Toward the end of her talk, Levey shifted her focus to girls, because she found that they were the gender that was most commonly a part of this competitive culture. Levey found that more often the daughters of highly successful parents, like lawyers or bankers, tend to want to train their daughters to be more aggressive, with the opportunity to become CEOs and presidents if they so choose.
Sociology major Ali Theodore ’12, who attended Levey’s talk, wrote in an e-mail to the Justice that “I found the speaker to be very interesting. She spoke about athletics (chess, soccer, and dance) and how parents feel the need to involve their children in as many activities as possible at a young age because of the fear that they will not develop the competitive skills needed to be successful in life.”
Prof. David Cunningham (SOC) also enjoyed in the lecture and wrote in an e-mail to the Justice, “It would have been difficult to come away from Hilary Levey’s presentation without thinking differently about children and competition. I really enjoyed how her sharp, rigorous, and often funny take on the worlds of competitive chess, soccer, and dance opened a new window on the workings of families, social class, gender and status.”
Levey concluded her talk with this statement: “For now it’s clear that these children I have studied are being raised to play to win, and I don’t see that changing in the near future.”
© Copyright 2010 The Justice
Dr. Hilary Levey
Harvard University, BA Sociology, 2002
Princeton University, MA Sociology, 2005
Princeton University, PhD Sociology, 2009Interests:
Reading, yoga, planning a wedding, organizing Gates alumni events, and consuming pop culture Yearbook entry:
I recently completed my dissertation (on competitive children’s activities) and am now a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Scholars in Health Policy program, where I am studying youth sports injuries. Alumni activities:
Alumni Association Co-Chair (lead on Ambassadors Program and New scholar-alum meetings; planning regional events and the 10th anniversary celebration!)
You can get a free PDF version of her conference at this link below:
You can also find a selection of previous published articles by Levey here:
The Canadian chess community is, from time to time, witness to much of the same type of parental-aggressiveness in pushing their children to achieve CV-worthy results. Canadian participation in the world sub-championships is an excellent example of one area filled with this behaviour: it is very easy to participate (the CFC does not always enforce pre-selection rules) in the sub-world championships, and the parents can use their childrens’ participation for CV purposes. Any parent willing to carry the financial burden of travel, etc can send his/her child to participate.
But in general, this type of behaviour is more commonly seen in other countries.
What is virtually completely absent in Canadian chess is such over-achievement efforts in children over the age of 15 or 16 years of age. At this age the attractiveness of participation in the very difficult World Junior Championship is very reduced. Especially since real skill is necessary.
The recent controversies about the CFC’s lack of interest in even sending Canadian participation at the World Junior simply mirror the parents’ realization that there is little (or none) CV-potential for their children beyond the sub-championships.
But should the CFC care about what parents think? Should not the CFC be more interested in promoting the game for the sake of the game?
SPRAGGETT ON CHESS