It’s not just what happens inside the classroom that determines a child’s status as an adult. Accomplishments outside the classroom can be just as influential. Yes, a basic public education is in principle free to all (though of course quality correlates with property values). But activities outside of school are not free, so they largely benefit already advantaged kids. While we talk a lot about inequalities between the rich and the poor, and the role school quality plays in perpetuating class divisions, one often overlooked factor is the opportunities middle- and upper-middle-class kids get to strengthen their life skills through organized competitive activities outside of the school system.
I spent 16 months on soccer fields and in dance studios and school basements, conducting nearly 200 interviews with parents, children, teachers, and coaches associated with competitive chess, dance, and soccer. Millions of American children engage in these three competitive after-school activities each year (travel soccer alone has over 3 million children playing on U.S. Youth Soccer teams), in addition to a multitude of other athletic and artistic options from music competitions to tennis to shooting.
The group of 95 families I met almost all belong to the broadly defined “middle class,” although a few were lower-income and many were upper-middle class. Training a lens on more affluent families helps us understand how and why the professionalization of children’s competitive after-school activities has become an important way that the middle class has institutionalized its advantage over others.
Parents identified five skills they want their children to learn through participation in competitive after-school activities that help develop the “all-around (wo)man” in the 21st century. Together, I call these skills “Competitive Kid Capital;” this Competitive Kid Capital helps distinguishes middle- and upper-middle class children from their less fortunate peers as they compete in various credentialing tournaments that will determine their place in the socio-economic hierarchy as adults.
The Importance of Winning
This is essential in acquiring Competitive Kid Capital. One soccer parent told me, “I think it’s important for [my son] to understand that [being competitive] is not going to just apply here, it’s going to apply for the rest of his life. It’s going to apply when he keeps growing up and he’s playing sports, when he’s competing for school admissions, for a job, for the next whatever.” Such an attitude prepares children for winner-take-all settings like the school system and lucrative labor markets.
Learning From Loss
Learning from loss involves perseverance and focus; kids are taught how to bounce back from a loss and win the next time. One mom explained, “The winning and losing is phenomenal. I wish it was something that I learned because life is really bumpy. You’re not going to win all the time and you have to be able to reach inside and come back.” Often kids have to lose in order to learn what it takes to win—and appreciate success. One father summarized how he tried to raise a son to be a winner in life: “This is what I’m trying to get him to see: that he’s not going to always win. And then from a competitive point of view, with him it’s like I want him to see that life is, in certain circumstances, about winning and losing. And do you want to be a winner or do you want to be a loser? You want to be a winner! There’s a certain lifestyle that you have to lead to be a winner, and it requires this, this, this and this. And if you do this, this, this and this, more than likely you’ll have a successful outcome.”
Learning how to succeed given time limits is also a critical skill. Games, tournaments, and routines all have time limits. Furthermore, the competition schedule is also demanding, cramming many events into a weekend or short week. On top of that, children need to learn how to manage their own schedules, something they might have to do someday as busy consultants and CEOs. One eight-year-old boy revealed how busy his young life is when he told me what soccer teaches him: “Dodging everything—like when we have to catch a train, and there are only a few more minutes, we have to run and dodge everyone. So, soccer teaches that [skill].”
The fourth ingredient in the Competitive Kid Capital recipe is teaching children how to perform and compete in environments that require adaptation. Competitors, and especially winners, learn how to adapt to loud, distracting, cold, hot, large, or small settings where they compete. The following quote from a mom of a fourth-grader links the competitive environment of chess tournaments to performing well on standardized tests: “It’s that ability to keep your concentration focused, while there’s stuff going on around you…I mean to see those large tournaments, in the convention centers, I know it is hard. I did that to take the bar exam, and the LSAT I took for law school, and GREs. You do that in a large setting, but some people are thrown by that, just by being in such a setting. Well that’s a skill, and it’s a skill and it’s an ability to transfer that skill. It’s not just a chess skill. It’s a coping-with-your-environment skill.”
Grace Under Pressure
Finally, in this pressure-filled competitive environment children’s performances are judged and assessed in a very public setting by strangers. One dance mom explained this fifth skill in the following way: “I think it definitely teaches you awareness of your body and gives you a definite different stance and confidence that you wouldn’t have…When she has to go to a job interview, she’s going to stand up straight because she’s got ballet training; she’s not going to hunch and she’s going to have her chin up and have a more confident appearance. The fact that it is not easy to get up on a stage and perform in front of hundreds or thousands of people, strangers, and to know that you’re being judged besides, definitely gives you a level of self-confidence that can be taken to other areas so again if she has to be judged by a teacher or when she’s applying for a job she’ll have more of that confidence, which helps you focus.”
The parents I met understand that missing a goal on the soccer field when you are eight won’t directly determine your future. But the resiliency you learn by coming back to play again likely will translate into other advantages later in life. The vast majority of today’s competitive afterschool programs are pay-to-play, which means the development of Competitive Kid Capital is differentially distributed by income. The goal made or missed at eight years old might not matter, but the skills acquired by engaging in competition do matter to elite schools and employers—emphasizing the real connection between the achievement gap and this accepted system of kid credentialing. Afterschool activities are not just about recreation, they are another way that not everyone in the United States is playing to win on a level field.