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Expert Insights on Competitive Activities with the author of Playing to Win Dr. Hilary Levey Friedman

September 18, 2013

by Michelle LaRowe
Editor in Chief

Recently I read a fascinating article in the Atlantic entitled “Soccer Isn’t for Girly-Girls? How Parents Pick the Sports Their Daughters Play.” Perhaps it was because I literally had just signed my soon-to-be-going to kindergarten daughter up for soccer that the title got my attention, but what I read within really captured it. So much so, that I reached out to author Dr. Hilary Levey Friedman to find out a little more about her work, her new book and what she makes of competitive activities for kids. Here’s what she had to say.

eNannySource: What separates a chess mom from a soccer mom from a dance mom?

Hilary: In many ways, not much. All of them want what is best for their kids and are concerned about the long-term futures of their children. I did find some general differences in the groups of parents I met (for example, chess parents were the most diverse in terms of race and ethnic backgrounds and soccer parents were the most affluent) and it surprises some people to hear that some of the chess parents I met were the most involved with their children’s activity– especially because they see such maternal misbehavior on a show like Lifetime’s Dance Moms.

eNannySource: In life, you aren’t always going to be a winner. How do you feel about programs that award trophies to everyone?

Hilary: As the parents and kids I met will tell you, in the end participation trophies don’t mean much. Among them, the youngest kids were excited the first time or two, but kids are savvy and quickly realize they don’t mean they really “won.” And parents claim they just collect dust! For kindergarten and below, maybe first grade, they can be a nice treat – but after that and in general they are pretty meaningless.

eNannySource: What are the first words that come to mind when you hear “Toddler’s & Tiara’s?”

Hilary: A staged show filled with families almost desperate for 15 minutes of fame.

eNannySource: How scheduled is too scheduled when it comes to extra-curricular activities?

Hilary: Kids need some downtime, but they also like to play with friends. If you miss family dinner every night of the week, that is definitely extreme. Making time to sit down together and not eat on the run or in the car is important for all kinds of reasons, as research has shown. It doesn’t have to be every night or every meal, but talking is important as well.

eNannySource: I read an article where you shared a little about your experience with a nanny and your resistance to call her that at times. Do you still have a nanny? What do you call her? Have you done any work on how having a nanny affects a mother’s relationship with other mothers? What are your thoughts on this topic?

Hilary: Yes, we still have a nanny and most of the time I call her a nanny, though sometimes to people I don’t know as well I say we have childcare or a babysitter. I myself haven’t done any research on this topic, but I think moms should support one another; in general though, in my experience, moms with similar arrangements (whether it be a SAHM, a working mom with kids in daycare, or moms who have in-home childcare through nannies or au pairs) seem to gravitate toward one another.

eNannySource: What’s the most important message you want to share with parents?

Hilary: I want to encourage parents to expose their children to lots of different activities and support the ones the kids love the most. It’s extremely important to ask lots of questions when choosing programs and teachers/coaches (make sure they have had CORI checks, ask about their experience with the actual activity and their teaching/training to work with young kids), but then parents should step back and let the teacher they trust take the lead. Also, for those who read Playing to Win, I want them to come away with new knowledge about how and why competitive afterschool activities work the way that they do, and reflect on their own parenting decisions.


Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is an affiliate of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University as a Robert Wood Johnson Scholar in Health Policy and she received her PhD in Sociology from Princeton University. Her first book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, was just released. To learn more about Hilary visit http://hilaryleveyfriedman.com/


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