In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Children and Competitiveness

  • Introduction
  • General Social Scientific Studies
  • Psychological Studies
  • Competition Related to the Educational System
  • Role of the Family
  • Gender
  • Consequences
  • Books on Children in Specific Competitive Activities
  • Documentaries on Children in Particular Competitive Activities
  • Television Shows on Competitive Children’s Activities

Childhood Studies Children and Competitiveness
Hilary Levey Friedman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 July 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0061


It has been well documented by quantitative and qualitative researchers that children in the early 21st century—particularly those in the middle class—live busy lives, full of scheduled activities in the after-school hours. What is critical, and not discussed as often, is the subject of this article: competition. Competition is a powerful presence in children’s lives, as many adults (mainly parents and teachers, but also coaches and instructors) place an emphasis on the acquisition of a competitive spirit in childhood. This is happening in a variety of fields across the age spectrum. The popular media have picked up on the increase in competition for young children and adolescents, and the conflicts that often ensue, particularly in the United States. Academics have been slower to study this trend, with few examining the structure, content, and Consequences of childhood competition; given the media focus, much of the scholarly work discussed below focuses on American children, and in cases where Australian and Canadian children are the focus, the results are presented by American publishers. This article pulls together work on kids and competition in a variety of areas, conducted by a range of scholars including sociologists, psychologists, historians, and economists. Given that competition is often a luxury afforded to those families who do not have to worry about housing, feeding, and clothing their children, most of the studies presented here look at those in the middle class; when lower classes are included, the potential to see how crucial childhood competition can be in the perpetuation of inequality is clear. Regardless of class, we can envision three major types of competition in children’s lives: (1) academic, (2) athletic, and (3) artistic. Social competition is also present, sometimes encompassing more specific competitive endeavors. Each of these categories is discussed below, though all are given equal weight. The ways in which certain categories—like Gender—impact the competitive experience overall are also discussed.

General Social Scientific Studies

Anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists have been tackling what it means for children to live in a competitive culture and how this culture is shaped by social class. Best 2011, Lamont 1992, Friedman 2013, and Levey 2010 examine issues related to parents and education. Darrah, et al. 2007 focuses on families and how competition touches them as they interact with the world on a daily basis. Levine 2006 and Luthar, et al. 2006 look at how pressures impact teens, especially those from affluent families. Family, schooling, and social class, in addition to after-school activities, are the primary social institutions involved in these works.

  • Best, Joel. Everyone’s a Winner: Life in Our Congratulatory Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

    Sociologist Best tackles the relationship between status and competition; chapter 3 addresses the prizes available to students today, like having multiple valedictorians and many honor societies; based on critical analysis of culture, less on original data, showing that competition can help us find our place in a complicated society.

  • Darrah, Charles N., James M. Freeman, and June A. English-Lueck. Busier Than Ever! Why American Families Can’t Slow Down. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007.

    This team of anthropologists followed fourteen American families and found that people are competitive about their busyness, especially when it comes to their children’s lives and activities; being “busy” is seen as a sign of success, even as the time demands sometimes stress everyone out.

  • Friedman, Hilary Levey. Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.

    First book to systemically consider the shape and impact of competitive after-school activities for elementary school-age children, their families, and the adults who teach them; a crucial starting point to understand the sociological, historical, and psychological perspectives related to the growth of these activities over time, drawing on examples from chess, dance, and soccer.

  • Lamont, Michèle. Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class. Morality and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226922591.001.0001

    A now-classic work of cultural sociology, Lamont interviewed 160 upper-middle class men to find out how they define success; a crucial part of this is how they raise their children to be competitive in school and sports, a crucial part of class reproduction.

  • Levey, Hilary. “Outside Class: A Historical Analysis of American Children’s Competitive Activities.” In Childhood in American Society: A Reader. Edited by Karen Sternheimer, 342–354. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2010.

    This is the first article on the development of competitive after-school activities, and it covers the Public Schools Athletic League and other organizations, like Little League; the argument is that while competition in after-school hours originally focused on low-income youth, one hundred years later the focus had shifted to middle- and upper-middle-class kids.

  • Levine, Madeline. The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.

    Levine, a practicing clinical psychologist, considers what is making affluent kids so unhappy and concludes that competitive pressures in the school system and sports are a key component; draws on her own experiences as a therapist in the Bay Area and research by others like Luthar.

  • Luthar, Suniya S., Karen A. Shoum, and Pamela J. Brown. “Extracurricular Involvement Among Affluent Youth: A Scapegoat for ‘Ubiquitous Achievement Pressures’?” Developmental Psychology 42.3 (2006): 583–597.

    DOI: 10.1037/0012-1649.42.3.583

    Psychologist Luthar is a pioneer studying affluent children and the pressures they face to achieve in and out of school; in addition to this paper, she has written a host of other articles based on original survey data looking at how academic and extracurricular anxieties increase well-off children’s rates of depression and rates of self-injury. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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