by Hilary Levey Friedman

Lois was one of the most involved moms I have ever met. She gave up her professional career to manage the childhood careers of her daughters, which involved private school, private tutors, and private lessons for a variety of afterschool activities. Even though her husband, a doctor, ensured that these activities were financially possible, her own children’s future financial lives seemed precarious to Lois. She explained, “Lottie goes to school with people who have trust funds and you can kind of see that their parents don’t really care if they do well in school. She knows she has to do well in school because she needs to be on a track that she’s basically going to support herself. . . . Like, when she grows up she says she wants to be a litigator. . . . I’m raising my kid to where she can compete in the marketplace.”

While researching Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture I met lots of parents like Lois who have credentials and affluence, but who feel the next generation is at risk. Because these families have achieved due to success in the educational system—and because they don’t have excess financial capital to pass on to their kids—they heavily invest in a form of cultural capital I call competitive kid capital. In the short-term kids learn to compete in afterschool activities like chess, and dance, and soccer; in the long-term kids develop skills that help them succeed in college admissions, graduate school, and the job market.

This competitive kid capital seemed to become even more important to parents during recent hard times. Participation in competitive afterschool activities is fairly recession-proof, as families I met intensified their children’s participation, being even more concerned about downward mobility. While most of the families said that the economic crisis had not affected their children’s participation in their particular activity, parents did report that it had affected their families overall. It would seem that instead of taking the opportunity to pull back, parents see the acquisition of competitive kid capital as more important than ever and worth the investment of family money and time to create a new type of trust fund for American upper-middle class kids in the twenty-first century.


Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She is an affiliate of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University as a Robert Wood Johnson Scholar in Health Policy and she received her PhD in Sociology from Princeton University. Read Hilary’s blog, or follow her on Twitter @hleveyfriedman.