This spoof cover from the Onion advertising “How to get your premature babies into the best incubators” presents a comical account of parents anxious to give their children a leg up on the competition. The humor of the cover, however—like the comedic value of most good jokes—comes not from its outlandishness but from the close-to-home truth it conveys.
Particularly in the fields of academics and athletics, parents are reacting to competitive pressures by pushing their kids to start earlier and work harder. The 2008 documentary Nursery University documents how some New York City preschools are charging up to $20,000 per semester per child—higher than the average tuition of private American universities. It should come as no surprise that this escalating preschool market is taking place in one of the most densely populated places in the world. The high volume of children in the city results in a high demand for a limited amount of spots at “elite preschools.”
Many bloggers, including economics professor Charles Wheelen, have noted that participation in sports has also become increasingly competitive among younger players. The goal of little league – in which I was taught “to have fun”—is slowly fading away as parents and coaches enforce the omnipresent urge to win. Sometimes pursuing the goal of winning even comes at the cost making kids prone to certain kinds of avoidable injuries, which at times even eventuate into the need for reconstructive surgery. Wheelen writes:
“If all of this makes kids and young families happier than they were 20 years ago, terrific. But I don’t think that’s what is going on. As far as I can tell, sports have three purposes: To get exercise, to have fun or to get your kid into college, earn a scholarship, turn professional and become rich and famous.
The evolution in youth sports appears to be mostly about the third one. Here’s the problem with that: The number of scholarships (and college athletes) is more or less fixed. So is the number of professional athletes and the total amount of money to be won on the PGA Tour.
If everyone practices three times as much, the same folks will probably end up with the scholarships, prize money and Nike endorsements. And if we assume that the extra practice, coaching and spending on equipment comes at the expense of other things (like riding a bike for fun, playing other sports or doing something really crazy like playing ‘kick the can’ in the backyard for a few hours), then our kids’ lives are worse for it.”
Perhaps the most problematic aspect of a race to the bottom is the difficulty or impossibility of escaping it. If parents prevent their children from starting competitive sports until they are ten years old or even older, then those kids will have to live with a competitive disadvantage unless all the other parents make this same decision. On the other hand, pushing kids into sports and preschools earlier and earlier degenerates into a race to the bottom in which everybody comes out worse off.
It remains to be seen what mechanisms could prevent this collective action problem. Wheelen points out that little leaguers are operating with fewer regulations that professional athletes. While this lack of regulation used to suffice due to a lack of necessity, it seems increasingly possible that regulations are needed to protect even the youngest of the current generation from plunging into various races to the bottom.