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].”