Parents are selecting their kids activities with their eye on college admissions and career success, according to Hilary Levey Friedman’s Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. This is particularly true for families raising girls. In it, she details the stunning divide between “girly girl” activities, like dance, and more aggressive activities, like chess and soccer.
The parents of chess and soccer girls frequently used the words aggressive or assertive when interviewed for the book. They are connecting the dots between these traits and future academic and earning potential. As one mom put it, “When I was interviewing [job candidates] at Morgan Stanley, if I got a female candidate–because it’s banking and you need to be aggressive, you need to be tough–if she played, like, ice hockey, done. My daughter’s playing [soccer], and I’m just a big believer in kids learning to be confidently aggressive, and I think that plays out in life assertiveness.”
The chess parents, in particular, actively use chess as a way to teach their daughters that they are equal to boys. “She doesn’t have any ideas about gender limitations and I think that’s a good thing,” proclaimed one chess parent.
Levey Friedman wonders aloud why girls are the distinct minority in kids chess, and draws the conclusion that the “aggression” turns girls off to the sport. However, soccer is an equally aggressive sport – and boasts three times the population of the Girl Scouts. So what gives?
Kids chess programs are typically held at the girls own elementary school – the very environment in which girls are valued and accepted for being “nice”. In fact, their survival in school depends on being perceived as “nice”, as detailed in Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons.
Learning to be aggressive with their own friends at school, through chess, is uncomfortable for girls at first. But eventually they accept it and learn to enjoy winning. The girls’ confidence starts to override the plague of “niceness”, which Simmons claims is to blame for the suffering of girls in their peer relationships and causes depression, anxiety, and worse (suicide).
Great kids chess programs have girls. Sometimes as many as 50%. And those same programs have great coaches that deal with the “nice” issue head-on. It is not to be swept under the rug, but to be talked about as a group, where the girls can express their feelings.
Last year, 90% of the girls I polled in our chess club expressed that they felt uncomfortable beating a female friend at chess. These same girls characterized themselves as “nice”.
The other – and I believe bigger – issue is that girls don’t like being the only girl, as outlined in Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain. A female lion will die without the acceptance of other female lions, and the human female brain is similar. Just last week, I received an email from a mom of a bright 3rd grader who wanted to join chess club…but discovered there are no other girls playing chess at her school, and therefore refuses to join.
This same scenario is to blame for girls self-selecting themselves out of the lucrative engineering field. The recent study by Girl Scouts of America indicates that only 11% of Engineering jobs are held by women, though 74% of girls are interested in STEM fields of science, technology, math, and engineering. Nearly half of all girls say they would feel uncomfortable being the only girl in a group or a class, the study found.
The simple solution: Girls-only chess classes. Let them compete against the boys during games, but allow them to learn with other girls. Give the girls their own coaches, just like soccer.