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Life at the End of a String

A new book calls out the illusions that keep families frantically on the run.

David Skinner
Little Platoons: A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age
by Matt Feeney (Basic Books, 320 pp., $28)

“You are competing with everyone for anything,” said a recent newspaper article. The writer was talking about the difficulty of renting a vacation home in an unusually tight summer market, but the same desperate urgency can be manufactured, especially by newspaper writers, around any number of goods: finding a date, landing a job, membership in a club, and so on.

It certainly feels like you are competing with everyone when you show up at the grocery store and all the toilet paper is gone or you walk into a popular restaurant on a Friday evening and the stressed-out hostess tells you the wait is at least an hour and a half. That feeling of scarcity, however, goes from irritating to gut-wrenching when the people whose needs you are trying to meet are your own children.

Little Platoons: A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age by Matt Feeney is an interesting book written by a smart liberal about that favorite institution of conservatives, the family. It takes the parent’s point of view, though in this case the parent is a sometime college professor and freelance writer whose specialty is political philosophy.

In its more philosophical pages, where the stresses surrounding family life are analyzed, the authorial voice becomes more than a little abstract. Feeney resorts too frequently to a style of writing that might have been developed to flatter those for whom grad school was the one and only highlight in life. I like him better when, in plain language, he is letting out his angry dad, but both sides of this book are actually worth spending time with.

The title comes from Edmund Burke, whom Feeney cites alongside that other lodestar of Anglo-American conservatism, Alexis de Tocqueville. From both he is drawing out a philosophical commitment not only to the primacy of families but to those voluntary associations of town, religion, sports, and stamp collecting that conservative thinkers celebrate for promoting civil society. It is here, in this sub-governmental realm, Feeney writes, that we encounter the feeling of scarcity and “a competitive mood” that “creates new forms of subservience and conformity among families.”

One unfortunate truth here seems almost undeniable: Good enough parenting is no longer good enough. It is socially unacceptable. Today’s more casual, laissez-faire parent runs a gauntlet of busybodies—other parents, relatives, magazine writers, pediatric researchers, and educators, many of them armed to the teeth with quantitative studies and neuroscientific findings, challenging poor old mom and dad on every choice they make from breastfeeding to sleep training to whether their sons should drink from plastic cups and possibly suffer a reduction in the size of their genitalia. And that’s just in the first couple of years or so.

Formally, the parenting struggle of all against all doesn’t begin until the great campaign to gain admission to preschool. Feeney quotes the head of a tony preschool in the San Francisco area, who says bluntly that, through its elaborate admissions process, the school is “assessing the parents.” At least as interesting is the question, smartly addressed by Feeney, of whether underprivileged children benefit—developmentally, educationally, and in long-term outcomes—from government-provided daycare. In the debate over Head Start, too, though, the question of whether children are indeed getting a leg up is hotly debated.

Overparenting is the common response to the suspicion that, as parents, we are competing with everyone for anything. (Overmothering, actually, might be more accurate, given that women do more parenting work inside the home than men, even as they also work more outside the home than their mothers did.) This part of the story is well known and well evidenced, especially in the middle and upper-class suburbs, as parents not only supervise homework but chauffeur, manage, and otherwise go around playing personal assistant to their little celebrity offspring. Children today are parented more, coached more, and watched more because, Feeney writes, their parents are working in the glare of a system of prompts constantly asserting the lifetime stakes of every little thing they do as parents.

But is it really a system? To me, it seems more of a cultural thing, a part of the zeitgeist, a more or less fractional presence that can be selectively ignored by dropping the appropriate news subscriptions, staying off social media, and not betting everyone’s happiness on whether little Becky gets into Harvard. The system Feeney describes—and, to his credit, not without plenty of evidence—is more encompassing. It is full of feedback loops, reciprocities, and other self-reinforcing mechanisms that do often seem interlocking, as when social media reinforces the fearmongering of parenting circles or vice versa.


One area where Feeney’s argument about competitive parenting strikes a major chord is in its discussion and reporting on youth sports. Feeney usefully compares European and American soccer clubs to show that the major difference can be found in the role of parents, the unpaid interns of American youth soccer. The debatable conviction that travel sports can, for more than a few, be a major factor in a child gaining admission to, and helping a family pay for, college has motivated parents to invest thousands of dollars a year and throw away years of their families’ time as they drive hither and yon to watch their overtrained, frequently injured sons and daughters compete against other overtrained, frequently injured sons and daughters. What families sacrifice in the process is almost unfathomable, starting but definitely not ending with the great privilege of eating dinner together.

Nowhere, however, in American society are the overexertions of parents and children more visible than in the way our children apply to college. That college admissions have become the site for so much posturing and self-loathing, along with so much doomed effort, is perhaps not surprising. Here, for the parent and the child, is something like a finish line, a possible final proof that they have won the great race. It’s an awful way to think of this important rite of passage, but it’s a wildly common perspective.

In this part of the book, Feeney begins to turn his attention on some of the people responsible for the awfulness: college admissions officers. Perfectly aware of the all-too-human limitations of their own institutions, admissions officers and their squads of marketing experts promote an obviously false image of college as the life-defining portal to the truest, greatest version of yourself. Humility is just not their bag.

Faced with a surfeit of qualified candidates who have been knocking themselves out since grade school, selective colleges encourage ever more students to apply in a transparent effort to inflate their application numbers and keep their acceptance rates low. Faced with no reasonable way of discerning a meaningful difference among hordes of similarly qualified applicants, those bureaucrats then presume to look into the hearts of our children via the great college essay.

A writing sample is, of course, a perfectly legitimate way of assessing thinking skills and could usefully add nuance to the black and white information gained from mere letter grades and an SAT or ACT score. But the college essay is so much more than a writing sample.

As Feeney makes clear in one of his best chapters, the college essay is an elaborate exercise in managing appearances. It is a full-blown genre of phony humblebrag—a demonstration of basic narrative skills under the massaging influence of parents, teachers, and writing coaches. It is a sham. Like the multi-hour drive and overnight hotel stay for a travel soccer tournament in rural Whereverland, the college essay and much else about the application process is an overhyped imposition on everyone involved, measurable not just in the loss of a few evenings or a weekend but in the loss of all that time spent beforehand trying to answer the finally unanswerable question, What does a college want from me?

Parents do deserve some blame, more, I think, than Feeney lays on them. Having recently survived my child’s college application process, I can describe my own overwrought feelings when she did not get into the incredibly competitive school that was her first choice. I thought, Oh no, we didn’t goad her enough, we didn’t drive her enough, we didn’t properly convince her that her entire future was riding on getting perfect grades, we allowed her to underperform when she felt like phoning it in, oh no, we failed, utterly, we failed, we allowed mediocrity to seep into our book-filled home … maybe it was genetic, my genes or my wife’s, or some unlucky mixing of the two, maybe we never should have married each other, maybe we should have sacrificed more to send her to private school, maybe, maybe, maybe.

And then I took a breath. I thought about how much meaning and benefit I derived from the college I went to, which was not my first choice and was not especially hard to get into at the time, thank goodness. I also recalled all the unimpressive people I have met who went to America’s most famous colleges and all the impressive people I have met who went somewhere else. Then I congratulated my daughter on getting into an excellent school that was her second or maybe third choice.

Surely, most parents and children find their way past such disappointments, but for countless moments beforehand, and in some cases long afterwards, they let themselves be used. Little Platoons comes to the aid of families by counting the ways in which their lives are being scripted by people and organizations that benefit from ratcheting up the anxieties of parents and children alike.

David Skinner is an editor and writer who writes about language and culture. He lives with his family in Alexandria, Virginia.

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