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.
There are so many issues packed into that Onion spoof cover, it’s hard to know where to begin!
A big part of the issue with sports, of course, is the totally unrealistic expectation that parents and kids have about the chances of making it as a big-time professional athlete. The fallacy or cognitive bias at work here is staggering. If a kid is already something of a star on his (and yes, I think this is mostly a problem for the boy child, since everybody recognizes that there are few avenues for girls to grow up and make big money in sports) little league or middle school team, it seems that a very high percentage of parents (like 40-60%) think that if he worked hard enough he’d have a real shot at the pros. They think it’s 50-50, not like 1-in-200,000. Whatever is going on here, it looks less of a race to the bottom than a willingness to walk en masse over a cliff because they all thought they could fly…
It would be useful to know for which sports (or other endeavors) there is evidence that starting early to get “elite” training actually helps. My guess is that it varies drastically from sport to sport.
Another thought. In some countries like Japan, it really does seem to be important to “get on the right track.” The best jobs go to graduates from particular universities; your best shot at getting into those universities comes from being trained in certain elite prep schools; and so on down… So here’s the hypothesis: the more rigid that “pathway” is — the harder it is for a late bloomer to be able to show they have what it takes — the more the pressure for parents to get their kids on the right track early will have the structure of a race to the bottom.