A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age
by matt feeney
basic books, 303 pages, $28
Were we carrying Matt Feeney’s new book around with us in striving-class Toronto in non-pandemic times—whether to lessons and practices and games, or to parent-teacher meetings and PTA meetings and post-meeting parking lot meetings—other parents would be asking us what we're reading. And inevitably, some would worry about why they weren’t already reading this book, too. Because if reading about the problem of competitive parenting gives you and your child an edge over others, you need to be doing it, now.
This anxious comparison game is the very problem Feeney diagnoses in Little Platoons, a spirited and fast-paced exploration of the contemporary culture of competitive parenting. Professional-class parents, he argues, increasingly involve their families in a ruthless game that is harmful to family life itself. “As we indulge the competitive fear that lives and grows in our parenting world,” he writes, “the inhuman, instrumental rules that govern the outside world are colonizing the inner lives of families too, changing our very conception of what the inner purposes of family life are.” Feeney's primary focus is the American institutions—especially elite universities—that “administer the competition of families against each other.” It has become too easy, even admirable, for anxious parents to “recast their priorities in the functional terms prescribed by these institutions,” and to “reimagine the vocation of parents as creating more contestants for this competition.”
Feeney’s purpose in this book is to defend the family—what he calls an “irreplaceable zone of human connections”—against this culture. His diagnosis is based on his own experience as a father, as well as what he has observed at kids’ birthday parties and on the sidelines of soccer games. His book relies on a wide array of sources, including Marcel Mauss’s work on the gift economy, Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother, and academic studies of parental involvement and childhood learning outcomes.
Drawing on this material, Feeney examines many of the challenges of aspirational class childrearing in various competitive environments, including preschool and sports. He also (of course) addresses the promises and perils of technology use. In all contexts, he points out, parents are determined to ensure that their children have a perfect combination of academic achievement, extracurricular exceptionalism, and personal distinctiveness, almost entirely in service of future college applications. As such, at all stages of a child’s life, parents are willing to pay, drive, wait around, and volunteer, expending exorbitant sums of time and money.
Feeney devotes most of his critical attention to the institutions and subsidiary entities that profit from the efforts of hyper-committed parents. “Institutions feed from the energy and resources of families,” he notes repeatedly. He is especially dismayed by the invasive admissions process of the elite university, with its criteria for evaluating a teen’s ethics, potential, and authenticity. The result of this “intimate and invasive moral training,” Feeney points out, is both a standardization of applicant profiles and a depressing conformity among the families that support them. “If, thanks to . . . fear,” he writes, echoing William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep, “people come to believe that a successful life requires passage through a super-selective college, and if such colleges use the leverage this gives them to require sheepish levels of agreeableness in their successful applicants, then agreeable, sheepish college students are what you're going to get.”
Feeney's assessment of contemporary middle-class parenting is witty and engaging, but at important points, his analysis falls short. His book doesn’t invoke the higher purposes of the family, only threats to it. And, as well as he does this, it is not enough to point out the harms of the culture of competitiveness; in order to avoid being subsumed by the elite admissions game, families need substantive counterweights to it—such as churchgoing, which counteracts the pull of the secular institutions that admissions-obsessed families patronize to gain advantage over rival families. In the pews, you are called and challenged to pray, think, and do for more than yourself and your own. None of this will help you get into the right school, and thank God for that: An active religious life invites you and yours to discern your roles in a much greater plan.
Anna Boyagoda directs the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program for the Archdiocese of Toronto. Randy Boyagoda is Professor of English at the University of Toronto.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
Image by Bartholomew Dandridge via Creative Commons. Image cropped.