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Prominent sociologist Hilary Levey speaks about competition in children

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Section: News

January 29, 2010

Playing to win: Sociologist Hilary Levey speaks Thursday about raising children in a competitive culture.<br /><i>PHOTO BY Paula Hoekstra</i>

Playing to win: Sociologist Hilary Levey speaks Thursday about raising children in a competitive culture.
PHOTO BY Paula Hoekstra

Sociologist Hilary Levey spoke at Brandeis yesterday about her recent studies in adolescent competition as part of the Sociology Spring 2010 Colloquium Series.

The session was entitled “Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture,” and focused on research over 16 months regarding why children have become so competitive, and why the competitiveness is beginning so young.

Levey’s research began with societal influences that encouraged competition, which she defines as activities organized by adults with a selection process and rewards such as trophies. With the rise of college applications and admissions, parents feel the need to “groom their children,” or pad their children’s résumés with as many activities as possible, especially activities in which they can be the best.

Levey focused on three case studies: academic (chess), artistic (dance) and athletic (soccer). She chose two groups of each, one in an urban area and one in a suburban area to get a larger range of people and be able to verify the validity of the responses, all middle to upper-middle class, and all in the Northeast. She conducted interviews with more than 150 parents, children, teachers and coaches.

Most parents view these competitive activities as ways for their children to become acquainted with what it takes to survive in the real world. They can internalize the importance of winning while learning to bounce back from a loss and perform in a stressful situation.

“I think it’s important for him to understand that…this is important for the rest of his life,” one father said in an interview with Levey.

The second half of Levey’s presentation focused on girls in the three activities, and the social constructs of gender surrounding them. Levey described three different “gender scripts,” or stereotypes. The first was feminine girls, the graceful girls who were more likely to be dancers. Second was the aggressive girls, the tomboys who preferred soccer or chess. Last was the “pink girls,” the girls who were both aggressive and girly, wearing princess shirts with rhinestones and bows in their hair, but who still “kicked the boys butts,” according to one mother Levey interviewed.

Levey also discussed her theory that although parents do not articulate gender differences, their children pick up on them, and have strong ideas about gender and gendered activities, such as “tomboys” versus “girly girls.” Many children have also been raised to believe that boys and girls handle winning differently.

“Girls are more mature and nicer when they win,” one girl said, after losing two chess matches to a boy.

Parents are paying upwards of five figures every year for these coaches and teachers to turn their children into the most successful young adults possible, but at the same time, Levey pointed out, no one is teaching these trainers how to coach 8-year-olds. She stressed the importance of remembering that the children she studied are just that–children. Most of her research subjects are younger than fifth grade and have been competing for years due to the pressures of their parents.

“He doesn’t understand competition by its dictionary definition,” said one parent, “but he knows the feeling of it.”

Levey received her BA in Sociology from Harvard in 2002, her Master’s in Philosphy from University of Cambridge in 2003, her Master’s in Sociology from Princeton University in 2005, and PhD in Sociology from Princeton University in 2009.

The majority of her research includes childhood and family, culture, gender, and qualitative methods. Other work has examined child beautify pageants, the role of children in ethnographic research and the rise of sports injuries.

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