hedgehogs and foxes: what the ancient greeks can tell us about our children’s extracurricular activities

“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:


Filed under parenting

9 responses to “hedgehogs and foxes: what the ancient greeks can tell us about our children’s extracurricular activities

  1. I heart you. Have I mentioned this before? Such an interesting take, and perhaps a more academic/articulate approach to the same point I was making in my post: do what’s right for you and your family.

    I hadn’t thought about the idea of having the child who wants “all in” while I might be more reluctant. I guess we’ll have to see how that plays out as H grows up.

  2. Hi from Sparta! Wonderful explanation using your deep knowledge of this subject. I see a lot of parents perhaps doing the worst of both - wanting their kids to be too good at too many things. I think focusing on one or two things your kid likes is not so bad as long you don’t get too crazy about it; isn’t that better than getting crazy about the five things your kid does?

    • Right on RHP! :-) I’d be so curious to hear your take on this. You’re a few years ahead of us w/ the kids and I’m still debating where we are. The biggest problem I have with it is the commuting and scheduling. Something, which no doubt, is so much better in Manhattan where you’re not shuttling your kids for hours in the car.

  3. Also, it must be said that the Spartan approach is essentially the Communist approach to sport in youth. Then and now (see: China).

    Super smart- did you read Classics?!

    • True enough. The Spartan approach is the approach of any professional athlete, it must be said, regardless of what country they trained in. It’s just that in the US nobody cares to pluck out “promising” young kids and develop them as athletes, just the parents. And the parents must have the means to invest in these kids, so the “up by your bootstraps” stories in sport are limited to sports that you can practice for free with good partners for hours (? basketball?), or where there is significant talent and parental investment (the Williams sisters in tennis being the exception that proves the rule.)

  4. Lauren, you are so freaking smart. I’ve become an uber-fan of your writing.

    As for sports- we fall in the recreation camp. One benefit of not doing extra-curricular activities on Shabbat is that the decision is sort of out of our hands. Most traveling teams with all that intense stuff happens on Friday nights and especially on Saturdays.

  5. Richard Apfel

    Nice touch to much debated topic.



    Sent from my iPad


  6. Lauren, this is absolutely BRILLIANT in every sense of the word. As a European history teacher, I just loved these references, and it raises such important questions ~ cultivate mind or body, generalize or specialize? Such a wonderful and thoughtful post.

  7. Thank you all so much for indulging me with this one…a fun, if not slightly esoteric, mixture of the two passions of my life: parenting and classics! My mom is here and she is just glad I’m still ‘using’ my degree ;). I can’t quite figure out which camp I fall into. My instinct for my children is Athenian, but my personality itself is more Spartan. One thing I kept thinking about while writing this is how Athens was so successful as a *city* because of the exposure its citizens had to each other (and to the manifold visitors that graced its soil). So the historians were hobnobbing with the comedians who were reading the philosophers who were watching the great statesmen. They all collected in ‘the school of Hellas’ because of the atmosphere there of intellectual and artistic achievement. Yet each did his own thing. The ‘problem’ with Sparta was that everyone was trained in the same way: they had nothing new to offer each other. It made me wonder if it matters whether specialist families have their kids specialising in *different* activities so they can at least gain exposure to what their sibling(s) is (are) participating in.

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