Welcome to the second edition of the Brilliant Book Club for parents!
This week we’re concluding our discussion of Hilary Levey Friedman’s Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. We hope you’ve enjoyed hearing about all the important issues raised by this book for raising and educating our children.
Please check out the posts from the other Brilliant Book Club writers and read their final takes on this book:
Stephanie (of Mommy, For Real): “The Intersection of Friendship, Family, and Fun”
Deb (of Urban Moo Cow): “Playing to Win But Thinking for Yourself”
Sarah (of Left Brain Buddha): “Soccer Mom, Aggressive Daughter. Dance Mom, Effeminate Son?”
Lauren (of Omnimom): post pending
If you were to ask me which of my 22 years of schooling — from kindergarten to doctoral degree — were the most important to my education and development, I would not hesitate a second before telling you that my years at Emma Willard, an all girls boarding school, had the most impact.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that I am who I am — as a professional, as a friend, as a feminist, as a writer, and a thinker — in large part because I spent three years living and studying with only my female peers.
Here’s a list of powerful and successful women today (all single sex graduates) who might agree with me: Hilary Rodham Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Katie Couric, Nancy Pelosi, Condeleezza Rice, Gloria Steiner, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Diane Sawyer.
I’m not saying that I would be a completely different person if I had gone to a public school in my hometown or had gone away to a coed boarding school. Or that any of these famous women wouldn’t have accomplished what they had without the influence of a single-sex environment. And yet.
When you learn, grow, and, yes, even compete in an environment with other females, there’s something magical that happens. That claim sounds sentimental, overdramatic, completely nonscientific, and unconvincing. And it is.
I briefly considered examining the impact of single-sex schooling on educational achievement as part of my dissertation research. I have stacks and stacks and stacks of studies on single-sex education in my office. But the research itself was so inconclusive that I decided not to go there. At least as far as I can tell, there’s no good way of disentangling the effects of single-sex schools from the multitude of other ways that girls who choose (or whose families steer them) to attend single-sex schools might be different from those who do not.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my high school after I read Hilary Levey Friedman’s Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. Much like Hilary, I didn’t grow up in an environment in which parents spent much time cultivating “Competitive Kid Capital.” I grew up in a rural, working class town in upstate New York, and few students — if any — had gone away to the Ivy League or to a prestigious liberal arts college.
I had never participated in competitive sports or organized after school activities — unless you count a couple years of tap dance lessons when I was 8 or 9 — and not much changed when I went away to school.
Not surprisingly, girls’ lives aren’t dominated by “gender scripts” at girls boarding school in the way that Hilary Levey Friedman discusses in her book. Popularity or respect is not based on appearance or traditional standards of feminine beauty. Of course, there are pretty girls, and girls think about what they look like, but far, far less than in co-ed settings. (I arrived at my school at age 14 with a long morning routine not unusual for a girl my age in that era– blowing out my hair and curling it in typical 1980s fashion, eye makeup, foundation and blush; after a couple weeks at boarding school, I would crawl out of bed and often arrive at all-school morning meeting at 8 a.m. in what I slept in.)
If my parents weren’t all that interested in whether I acquired “Competitive Kid Capital,” neither was Emma Willard. If I were to list the skills and lessons that I gained from high school, the five aspects of Competitive Kid Capital — internalizing the importance of winning, bouncing back from a loss to win later on, learning how to perform under time constraints, learning to win under stress, and learning how to perform with others watching you — would not make the top 100. Competition was not a fact of our daily lives. Yes, there were some girls who excelled at sports or were terrific dancers, but it was not a part of the school culture to promote that above other more individual pursuits.
As Hilary Levey Friedman herself says in a HuffPost article about her single-sex experience, “We all learned as young women the hard-to-measure notion that females can be leaders in any area just by looking around us at our peers. This knowledge and the confidence that comes with it can’t be discounted.”
Is it possible that single-sex schools instill in young women a different type of preparation for success, beyond the credentials that parents hope that their children receive from competitive afterschool activities? Maybe single-sex schools can point us toward a different path, beyond the pressures and frenzied routines of what we expect from kids’ lives today.
I’m also thrilled to announce Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink by Katrina Alcorn as our next Brilliant Book Club pick!
I wrote about the book briefly a couple weeks ago, and I can’t wait to join Stephanie, Deb, Lauren, Sarah, and all of you in an important discussion about why women are struggling so much to “have it all” and feeling like they’re failing at so much. This book is one woman’s personal story of coping with family, work, and identity, but it also will be relatable to millions of women, no matter where they work (inside or outside the home) or what they do.
Please join us and we hope you’ll share with us your own stories of trying to balance career, family, marriage, and identity.