What does it take to ensure your child has a successful career? According to Hilary Levey Friedman’s blog post in the HBR Blog Network from 3 September, it appears many parents in the US believe that being competitive, organised and little neurotic are key to success. This belief is particularly strong when it comes to their daughters – leading many to enrol girls in competitive sports from a young age in order to prepare them for a competitive future in the workplace.
Hilary studied 95 families with elementary school age children as part of research that led to her book Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She identified five skills and capabilities that parents hope their children gain from participating in competitive sports: (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. Interestingly, these desired skills mirror the aptitudes required to reach the top of the ladder in business.
At the same time, Hilary observed a group of mothers who were very diligent in the way they planned their daughters’ activities, studying the best upbringing by participating in parenting groups. In essence, these parents micromanaged their daughters’ lives the way they manage(d) their professional projects.
Hilary’s writing prompts several observations and questions:
As one would expect, these parents all want their children to be happy. What’s more, the five skills and capabilities Hilary draws attention to make sense. For example, as Lynda Gratton commented during our recent Inclusion & Diversity workshop, all the evidence we have now indicates that the workers who reach the top of their organisations will be those who work continuously rather than those who take advantage of flexible options. But while being competitive and hard-working is undoubtedly vital to success, it’s worth questioning whether it takes being neurotic to master the necessary skills, or whether they are just as attainable for those with a more balanced approach. For example, one could ask whether parents who exert total control over their children’s choice of sports activities are ensuring their performance, or simply depriving them of an early introduction to making decisions around which skills they want to develop. Choosing which sporting activity to pursue is a great opportunity for this: in my experience, even young children have ideas of what they like to do, and that there is no right and wrong when it comes to choice of physical activity.
There is also the question of whether a seven year-old with a diary worthy of a CEO will really blossom into an adult with the drive and creativity to be one. It’s easy to ignore the benefit of “unstructured time,” but this is something which is considered valuable even in some workplaces because it fosters creativity and innovation. In many cases, creativity, innovation and imagination can actually come from being bored and having to figure out what you feel like doing because nobody tells you what you must do. While access to online games and activities may have greatly reduced these periods of boredom over the years that increases the need for parents to ensure their children have access to unstructured time that allows them to develop their creativity in unexpected ways.
Yet another thought-provoking aspect of Hilary’s research is the trend towards the ‘professionalisation’ of child rearing. Professionalism has its place at work, but is it really appropriate in the home? Are such parents really experiencing positive spillover between their professional and personal lives, or are they in fact failing to effectively separate their work habits and family habits? Ultimately, this trend may say more about their own relationship with their working lives than it does about their aspirations for their children.