"When I was interviewing [job candidates] at Morgan Stanley, if I got a female candidate — because it's banking and you need to be aggressive, you need to be tough — if she played, like, ice hockey, done. My daughter's playing, and I'm just a big believer in kids learning to be confidently aggressive, and I think that plays out in life assertiveness."
I met Madeline while studying 95 families with elementary school-age children who compete in chess, dance, and soccer — research that is the basis for my new book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. I label the lessons and skills that parents hope their children gain from participating in competitive activities "Competitive Kid Capital." The word "capital" applies, because many parents believe that the acquisition of certain character traits associated with vigorous competition will set their daughters up to be the leaders of tomorrow. In particular, as I talked with these parents about the skills and lessons they saw their children gaining from such activities, five themes emerged: (1) internalizing the importance of winning, (2) bouncing back from a loss to win in the future, (3) learning how to perform within time limits, (4) learning how to succeed in stressful situations, and (5) being able to perform under the gaze of others.
One of the questions that interested me was how parents of girls in particular make choices between the three activities, deciding which is best suited to building Competitive Kid Capital for a new generation of women leaders. Madeline also told me, "We have no illusions that our [nine-year-old] daughter is going to be a great athlete. But the team element [is important]... That ability to work on a team was a crucial part of our hiring process. So it's a skill that comes into play much later. It's not just about ball skills or hand-eye coordination."
Sports are important in American upper-middle-class culture. Historically women from upper-class families were most focused on the arts; but today athletics have become especially important for these women. Two studies, one by the Women's Sports Foundation and the other by the Oppenheimer Foundation, found that 82 percent of executive businesswomen played organized sports in middle school and high school and that 80 percent of female executives in Fortune 500 companies identified themselves as competitive tomboys during childhood. The Oppenheimer study also found that while 16 percent of women describe themselves as athletic, when you look at the responses of women who earn over $75,000 annually, the number rises to about 50 percent. These findings are consistent with the work of economist Betsy Stevenson on Title IX, which finds that participation in high school sports increases the likelihood that a girl will attend college, enter the labor market, and enter previously male-dominated occupations.
Given this, it's not surprising that moms like Madeline, competing themselves in the business world, seek out sports for their daughters — they know firsthand how important these experiences can be. But I also saw the same decisions being made by credentialed moms who opted out of the corporate world — and certainly no less dedication to capital-building.
Take Lois, who is in her early forties. She is married with two young girls, one in third grade and the other in kindergarten. Her husband is an ER doctor and she is a former banker who opted out of the workforce to focus more of her time and energy on getting pregnant after struggling with infertility, which she attributed to stress from work. When you meet Lois you quickly realize that she is constantly fiddling with the BlackBerry glued to her palm or ear as she arranges her daughters' classes, appointments, and play dates. Instead of managing employees and clients, Lois micromanages her daughters' lives.
Lois regularly attends a Parenting Mommy Group in an area that is not close to her home; she is willing to travel because she likes this particular group's discussions about childhood, competition, and activities. She also told me about her conversations with psychologists: "Raising kids is a big experiment and I won't know till later [if I did it right]. I have my own therapist ... and she is very suspicious about chess in particular because it puts rewards on achieving things rather than on the experience of it." All these meetings and discussions occur in between shuttling her girls from chess tournaments to figure skating lessons, tennis classes, and private Hebrew tutoring. When asked what she wants for her eldest, Lois replies simply, "I want her to be happy and balanced and not neurotic like me, obviously."
While all the moms I met want their children to be happy, they also think that being organized, competitive, and even sometimes a little neurotic, is the key to getting ahead in the business world. And that's a cornerstone to how they are raising their daughters to succeed — by finding ways for them to acquire competitive capital while they're young. I look forward to seeing the studies that will be published some thirty years from now ...