In Praise of Parenting Like A … Sociologist?

Welcome to inaugural post of the The Brilliant Book Club!

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Thank you for joining me, Sarah of Left Brain Buddha, Debra of Urban Moo Cow, Stephanie of Mommy, For Real, and Lauren of Omnimom as we read the latest books about parenting — from research-based books on parenting practice to books that reflect on the emotional and personal aspects of childrearing.

Every other month, we’re selecting a recent book about parenting. Over eight weeks, we will invite you to read along with us, and share your ideas with us on Facebook, Twitter and our blogs. On the last Monday of each month, each of us will share posts of our thoughts about the current selection and our own unique perspective on it as parents.

Join us on Facebook at the Brilliant Book Club page

Our first selection is:

Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture by Hilary Levey Friedman

Don’t forget to check out the posts from the other fantastic Brilliant Book Club writers!

Playing to Play (And Not To Get Into College)” (Omnimom)

How Harmful is a Culture of Winning at All Costs?” (Urban Moo Cow)

From Little League to the Ivy League” (Mommy, For Real)

The I.V. League? Being Mindful of Why We Compete” (Left Brain Buddha)

Parenting… Like a Sociologist?

The hardest part about writing my dissertation (besides the fact that I conducted most of my research interviews during my third trimester of pregnancy and wrote most of the dissertation itself during “spare” moments while my colicky baby napped) was that I couldn’t decide if I should think like a psychologist or like a sociologist.

Even though in academia, education is a multi-disciplinary field, if pressed, I would always say that I’m a sociologist at heart. It was my major in college, what I studied in graduate school after college, and the department (outside of education) in which I did the majority of my doctoral coursework. However, most of the members of my committee — including the Dean — were psychologists.

To people outside of academia, this doesn’t sound like a very big deal, does it? Both disciplines study people, families, cultural phenomena, why people do what they do. But to me it felt like I was trying to bridge two different worlds. Sort of like spending most of my day with Star Trek fans and then trying to explain what you’re learning from these people to Star Wars fans down the block. Seems like it should work — they’re both interested in space and sci-fi, right? — but it mostly didn’t.

I started off using sociological frameworks and concepts — cultural capital, habitus, symbolic violence — to help me understand the experience of urban public school kids who make the transition to New England prep schools. I tried to integrate these theories with the perspectives that my adviser and chair had talked about to me (using their research expertise in resilience, coping, adversity and stress responses), but frankly I was too tired as a new mom to come up with an entirely new, intellectually daring, boldly integrative conceptual framework.

Thus, my dissertation is about the stories of these students and how they coped individually, given the skills and strategies available to them, and how they cultivated grit and resilience despite enormous obstacles.

My dissertation tells a set of important life stories. But I don’t think I told the whole picture of how students of color succeed in an unfamiliar world of power and privilege, especially after reading Hilary Levey Friedman’s new book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.

I don’t think understanding psychology (how students are motivated, how students learn, what coping skills are learned) is enough. We need sociology as well for a complete picture.

In age of increasing anxiety about global competition, parenting practices, and an uncertain economic future, today’s parents are looking for answers about how to raise happier, healthier kids who will be able to make it and be productive, even successful, in today’s world. Separated from extended family, pressed for time as we work longer and longer hours, we are also increasingly individualistic as families and as parents. We have turned inward, believing that controlling our children’s time and using “intensive parenting” techniques will prevent our children from setbacks or adversity that may negatively impact their futures.

English: A Stanton Junior High soccer player e...

For instance, psychologists, such as Madeline Levine (and I’m a big fan), who are interested in examining the effects of competition on children, ask questions, like: How does competition affect children’s self-esteem and their emotional lives? How do we teach children to have self-control and creativity? However, sociologists, such as Hilary Levey Friedman, want to analyze the roots of American children’s increasingly competitive childhood. She asks why certain lessons or skills (what she calls “Competitive Kid Capital”) are valued so highly by parents.

To (over)simplify the differences between the two disciplines, I would explain that psychologists want to know more about what’s going on inside the individual: their perceptions, their emotions, their cognitive processes. In contrast, sociologists are more interested in the larger social forces that shape our lives. Families, in this view, are social institutions that are impacted by other institutions, such as the legal system, the media, and other cultural forces.

What I love about Hilary Levey Friedman’s book is that she makes the case that childhood competition is about more than creating anxious kids through the influence of equally anxious parents. It’s also about reproducing the world that we inhabit and its class, race, and gender lines. It’s about reshaping the experience of childhood itself and trying to teach children a particular set of life lessons in order to increase later chances for successful college admissions.

She has a name for this collection of life skills and lessons: “Competitive Kid Capital.” She identifies them as 1) identifying the importance of winning 2) bouncing back from a loss and then winning in the future 3) learning how to perform within time limits 4) learning how to succeed in stressful circumstances 5) being comfortable performing while others are watching.

Books like Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture may be different than most of the other parenting books on your shelves, but you may find that you learn a lot about yourself, your children, and our society. Most importantly, you may be more knowledgeable about the structures influencing children’s lives as they learn how to play to win.

Do you think you’re a sociologist or a psychologist at heart?

Here are a few of my other favorite books about kids, education, or parenting written by sociologists:

Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life by Annette Lareau

The Second Shift: Working Families and the Revolution at Home by Arlie Hochschild

The Best of the Best: Becoming Elite at an American Boarding School by Ruben Gaztimbide-Fernandez



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17 thoughts on “In Praise of Parenting Like A … Sociologist?”

  1. Pingback: The I.V. League? Being Mindful of Why We Compete - Left Brain Buddha

  2. Pingback: From Little League to the Ivy League?

  3. Pingback: playing to play (and not to get into college) | omnimom

  4. This was so interesting, Jessica! I love the slant you took for this post. I must say, psychology has always been more my background. My college major was music therapy, which had a lot of psychology involved, and I liked it so much that I minored in psychology. I have always paid more attention to family of origin and interpersonal conflicts, the unconscious mind, etc, and I love Carl Jung. It is good for me to open up a little more to the sociological point of view- this book has been so eye-opening for me!

  5. This: “childhood competition is about more than creating anxious kids through the influence of equally anxious parents. It’s also about reproducing the world that we inhabit and its class, race, and gender lines.” Yes.

    So interesting about your dissertation. (You seem disappointed in yourself for not coming up with a new conceptual framework, while I remain in awe that you did all of that during the third and fourth trimesters! Wow.) I think it is true that we tend to focus on psychology, perhaps because it interests us more to think about how we feel and how others feel, too. But the perpetuation of class structure — of culture — is sociological. And even anthropological, which is the lens through which I tend to look at things.

    I’m curious to hear what you think you will do with your son….

  6. Ah, Jessica, what a brilliant read. I am so, so glad you came at it from this angle, partly because I appreciate a different perspective on the book (from the more obvious one I took), but partly because I found myself wanting to hear a sociologist’s analysis of the overall project. As an academic, I was really impressed with the way HLF used her material and the way she explained HOW she was using the material, but I have no background in this field in particular. So too I enjoyed the way she put our current state of anxiety in context and how the book was a laying bare of a phenomenon, not a judgment of that phenomenon. I mean my mom was a poster child for “concerted cultivation” and it’s kind of funny (and strangely heartening) to see her mission to mold us into ‘whole packages’ (an expression I grew up hearing!) as part of a larger historical trend. Thanks for writing this. And to answer your question: I am a psychologist at heart.

    1. Hilary Levey Friedman

      Yay– you totally GOT what I was trying to do. In the end, I do make judgments, but honestly the whole time I was doing the research and analysis, I didn’t (I learned how NOT to do this studying child beauty pageants before… Although some chess parents I met are seriously “crazier” than many pageant moms!). I was *forced* to do it while turning the dissertation into a book and I do think it’s necessary, but it’s also good to have a pure research perspective for a good portion of time too.

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  8. Can I be both??? I love reading parenting books that address the “here’s what to do with your child,” and the ones that look at social trends too! I teach both Psychology and Anthropology in the spring, and it is so interesting to teach them at the same time, because although we are studying human behavior in each class, it is a very different lens, I suppose like micro and macro-economics. But I feel I learn so much from teaching the same concepts {like gender} through different approaches.

  9. Jessica I love your take on this subject. I have to be honest that I never really looked at parenting from a sociological point of view. I now really want to check out this book, thanks!!

    1. Hilary Levey Friedman

      Can’t wait to hear your thoughts! Sociology is often overlooked, partly because I like to say we are all “armchair sociologists” and I think the best sociology (what I ASPIRE to) is the type where when you read it you, say, “Oh, yes, I recognize myself! Why didn’t I think of it that way before?”

  10. This was so interesting, Jessica! You know, I’m still not sure which way I think, but I agree both are helpful to truly understand a situation–even parenting.

  11. I’m a linguist, so I lean more towards the sociological interpretations, but I have a long-standing interest in psychology as well. Right now I have a newborn, and I’m focusing mostly on watching her trying to make sense out of the world. So far she seems to have decided that lights are fascinating. I wish I could understand more of what’s going on in her head, but I’m sure she’ll tell us about the categories she’s forming once she’s able to talk.

    1. Hilary Levey Friedman

      I’ve only ever taken one linguistics class, but with a toddler now I really wish I knew more about phonetics, language acquisition, etc.

  12. Hilary Levey Friedman

    So amazing to have such smart people read my book! Two comments to make here: 1) It still totally shocks me, but in all my years of schooling, I have never taken a psychology class. I feel it’s shameful and probably part of the reason my son has done 20+ psych experiments since he was born (I can send you a Boston Mag article I wrote on this, and a hilarious TV spot I did with him doing an experiment). especially because if I ever needed a “trade/skill” I would want to be a therapist (or maybe a lawyer… No, a therapist). I love reading good psych studies, though it perplexes me that that discipline has escaped the small-n study problem that much of sociology hasn’t. 2) I feel one of the takeaways from Playing to Win that education people should get is that part of the reasons the success rates in many prep programs that help inner city kids get into elite schools (here I mean the completion rates) goes beyond classroom prep and is about all this cultural capital that middle class kids soak up in these sorts of activities. Would love your take on this!

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  14. Pingback: (Competitive) Afterschool Activities and Inequality: More Thoughts

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