“My children have no wish to live in Sparta, and I have no desire to change that.” I love this opening line by KJ Dell’Antonia, in a piece entitled “What Happened to Recreational Sports?”, because 1) I tend to agree with it and 2) I always get a little giddy when I see clever references to antiquity in my daily parenting reading. It’s like two worlds colliding for me in the best possible way.
What Dell’Antonia is talking about is her family’s ethos of playing sports for fun as opposed to the more rigorous and competitive Laconian regime Lisa Catherine Harper outlines in a companion post called “The Crazy, Intense Schedule of Competitive Youth Soccer? Bring It On.” What Dell’Antonia is lamenting is the fact that team sports today have become the province of “those willing to sacrifice much on a Spartan altar” with little room for those of us whose kids and mentality are more, shall we say, Athenian. The analogy got me thinking.
The image both writers invoke with the word “Spartan” is of the austere, physically demanding and discipline-heavy training program (agoge) the ancient Spartans used to raise their sons into ur-warriors. This program was a collective endeavor and it was narrowly-construed: the goal was to make soldiers of the highest caliber. Sparta was a hugely successful fighting nation as a result, but such success, it could be argued, came at considerable cost. The Spartans lived lives free of cultural recreations - of drama, of poetry, of philosophy - of all of the things, in other words, that were the hallmark of Athenian civilization at the same time. While Athens was busy producing some of history’s greatest artists and wordsmiths, the Spartans were being, well, laconic. And pretty brutal to boot.
The difference between Sparta and Athens in this respect is legendary. And it does capture something of the difference in raising children these days between the single-minded pursuit of one sport or activity versus the more rounded, and more relaxed, participation in many. In fact, this is precisely the dichotomy Hilary Levey Friedman refers to as the “specialist” versus “generalist” divide in her book Playing to Win, which (fast-forward a couple of millennia) is about the competitive youth culture of twenty-first century America.
“A good number of parents I met strive to make their children ‘well-rounded’,” Levey Friedman explains. “A smaller group of parents I met want their children to be high achievers in just one area.” Both sets value the importance of winning, they just go about internalizing that value in their kids in distinct ways. The same is true of Athens and Sparta, we should note, which were both inherently competitive societies, despite their opposite characters. Sparta was a military machine, where victory on the battlefield was sought with laser-like focus. Athens was ripe with festivals, games and court cases, all of which were combative: even the city’s renowned performances of tragedies and comedies was a competitive affair. Spartans wanted to win at one thing; Athenians wanted to win at many things.
Like their classical forebears, modern American parents have embraced the importance of competition and winning in the creation of successful individuals. But, unlike the ancients whose lives were determined, for the most part, by the borders in which they were born, parents now have the choice between raising a specialist and raising a generalist. And the children have choices too, which can lead to the mismatch of “citizenship” Harper touches upon in her essay. While an Athenian mother would never have the opportunity to submit her kid to the harsher Spartan mode of education, Harper says that the decision to go Laconian with soccer was her daughter’s, not her own: she and her husband would be happy camping out on the Acropolis. In the end, however, it is they who have to shoulder a large part of the burden their eleven-year-old’s “crazy” schedule entails.
Because the specialist track is a bit crazy for children and parents. It requires, Levey Friedman observes, “specialization at an early age, professional coaching, high levels of raw talent, and substantial family resources.” Like the agoge, it is not for the faint of heart. And yet, for the sake of our analogy, it is interesting to note that Spartan kids were removed from their homes at seven years old and given up to the state to be trained at public expense. The “intense” schedule they underwent wasn’t to the detriment of their parents’ time or pocketbooks: it was a community onus. It wasn’t the moms who were ferrying the children between shield-bearing practice and spear-throwing class, as it were, or forking out the money for said equipment.
What the Spartan moms did, rather, was wave goodbye to their children when they were just boys and then wave them off to war when they became men, uttering this simple warning cry: “with your shield or on it.” Come back carrying your shield in victory or come back on top of it in death. If you’ve dropped it in cowardice, don’t come back at all. The attitude here is essentially to win at all costs and that’s not terribly surprising in light of the undiluted nature of the polity’s war effort. Which is exactly my concern with the Spartan/specialist path: the higher the investment, the higher the stakes. How high is too high for elementary-school-aged kids? How high is too high for their parents, who have lives of their own and other children to take into consideration?
Ultimately, the answer to these questions is down to the personalities and resources of the families involved. Cliche as it is, both paths have their benefits. Sparta won the Peloponnesian War after all, with her superior skill in that particular arena. Athens, you might say, won the war of legacy with her unrivalled contribution to the Western canon across a whole range of subjects. “The fox knows many things,” the Greek poet Archilochus tells us, “but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Today’s parents are not alone in choosing between these two approaches for their children: people have been doing it since time immemorial.
Please check out the other Brilliant Book Club posts on Playing to Win at the links below:
- (School of Smock) From Strong Girls to ‘Maxed Out’ Women
- (Mommy, For Real) The Intersection of Competition, Friendship and Fun
- (Urban Moo Cow) Playing to Win But Thinking for Yourself
- (Left Brain Buddha) Soccer Mom, Aggressive Daughter. Dance Mom, Effeminate Son?