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  • The demands of the college prep regime destroy the climate of play and freedom that once characterized out-of-school time for middle-class children. Tweet This
  • The family, Feeney writes, is an “irreplaceable zone of human connections,” one that offers a distinctive experience of privacy, intimacy, and tribal solidarity in an atomistic, hyper-individualist culture. Tweet This

Every day brings a new Twitter smackdown–or two or three–but as I write this in mid May, the platform is hosting a real humdinger. Atlantic writer and Twitter starlet (over 200,000) Elizabeth Bruenig published a Mother’s Day article in the New York Times describing her surprise pregnancy at age 25, an unusually young age in the small cosmos of NYT readers, and the unexpected richness and clarity the baby, and now that baby’s younger sister, have brought her. Bruenig might have suggested chaining children to a radiator for all the disgust it inspired. In general, the writer's Twitter feed is a disorienting read, completely alien to the bloodthirsty spirit of what we Twitter addicts fondly call “this hellsite.” She posts photos of the frosted cookies and artfully presented dinners she makes for her family and friends, and she exhibits unabashed affection for her husband, pundit Matt Bruenig, who by many accounts doesn’t always arouse such feelings in people. I’ve never met her in person, but Bruenig’s Twitter persona radiates a combination of wit, generosity, and contentment as rare these days as a bright blue sky in Beijing. So, of course, she makes many people very angry.   

Matt Feeney, author of the probing new book Little Platoons: A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age, finds a similar state of grace in the domestic life he shares with his wife, Juliet, and their three children. The family, he writes, is an “irreplaceable zone of human connections,” one that offers a distinctive experience of privacy, intimacy, and tribal solidarity in an atomistic, hyper-individualist culture. No doubt, many people will find his sense of these things as mystifying as they do Bruenig’s. Since World War II, the bourgeois family has been given the stink-eye by the progressive forces of feminism, sociology, and academic theory. Magnified by the pandemic, those forces continue to overstock the Internet with first-person complaints about thoughtless husbands, women’s frazzled work-life nerves, capitalism’s anti-family time suck, laissez-faire social policies that fail parents in every way imaginable, and the isolation inherent in the nuclear family model. Feeney agrees that our current cultural arrangements are poison to a thriving family life, but his grounding in political philosophy and sharp skills of observation lead the reader into a discussion simultaneously subtle and weighty.   

The primary villain in Little Platoons—the college admissions process—won’t surprise anyone familiar with the harsh meritocratic tenor of middle-class life in the United States today. The ruthless race for a spot at an elite college governs not only where parents live, how much mortgage debt they’re carrying, and what k-12 schools their children attend, but the texture of daily family life. Feeney doesn’t blame parents for their helicoptering college anxiety; they are doing what they believe is essential to their children’s future security. Where his book differs from other critiques of this sort is his depiction of the way institutions themselves “stoke the competitive fears of applicants and parents.” Engaged in their own cutthroat competition for a high rank in the satanic “Best Colleges,” published yearly by US News and World Report, colleges and universities have managed to engineer such terror in the hearts of parents that even the wealthy, celebrities among them are willing to risk jailtime to get their kids acceptance letters. The schools have created a Common Application supposedly to make it easier for students to apply to more schools, but that also happens to swell their applicant numbers thereby suppressing the acceptance rate. They’ve been known to hike tuition to add to the perception of their school as a luxury product and parents have been known to fall for it. 

Some of the institutional attempts to increase their status veer towards the sadistic. Hamilton College included sample essays with their application so that aspiring students would have an idea the kind of missive the admissions committee preferred. Feeney cites one sample that begins; “On the day my first novel was rejected, I was baking a pie.” By the end of the essay the writer—assuming she’s —has been signed by an agent. Happy for her, maybe, but the essay is a heart-sinking read for the ordinary 17-year -old whose extra-curriculars include a bit part in the school’s production of “Oklahoma” and who struggled to get a B plus in Calculus. It’s also a dispiriting reminder to parents that no matter how much money they spent, no matter how hard they worked to find the right teachers, coaches, and tutors, their own child has not a hope in hell of getting an agent. Hamilton can get away with this kind of thing, in part, because of its size; a small school—Hamilton has only 1,924 undergrads—can make it seem as if they’re sincerely evaluating an applicant for their authenticity, rather than the fabricated simulacrum that the college application process tends to produce. No one at a school the size of the University of Toronto, one of the best institutions in Canada with 65,000 undergrads, could make such a claim with a straight face.   

From the earliest days of childhood, Feeney shows, experts, educational institutions, and the media dictate the rules of childrearing that shape middle-class family life.  

From the earliest days of childhood, Feeney shows, experts, educational institutions, and the media dictate the rules of childrearing that shape middle-class family life. Experts tell parents their kids need to be in a language rich environment, so they engage in “a method of parenting that might be called never shutting up.” Each small decision requires hours of research and sleepless night, as suggested in a Washington Post headline that reads “Why Your Children’s Day Care May Determine How Wealthy They Become.” In hypercompetitive Manhattan, nursery school admissions personnel test and interview kids who have yet to be potty-trained in order to decide whether they’re worthy of joining the pipeline for the highest ranked prep schools, which in turn will put them in the running for the Ivies. No wonder overanxious middle-class parents try to size up the competition. The birthday parties with puppet shows, clowns, and designer cakes, the esoteric organic snacks, the brainy toys are all meant to impress as well as to entertain and enrich. Feeney would be unsurprised by Caitlin Flanagan’s recent Atlantic article about elite private schools. In it, she quotes a letter from the head of Washington’s prestigious Sidwell Friends that warned parents they would only be given access to the academic records of their own children. It appears that some parents were trying to enlist the school to help them spy on their children’s classmates and friends—or rather, competitors.  

The demands of the college prep regime destroy the climate of play and freedom that once characterized out-of-school time for middle-class children. Sports are simply more school: scheduled, routinized, and dedicated to advancement. It may be fine for six-year-olds to play on soccer teams. It’s another matter when the pressure to sign up for individualized coaching, private clinics, and competitive sports clubs magnify a series of inconsequential games into a fierce inter-familial tournament. This takes an obvious toll—Feeney notes an ad for a chiropractor next to an announcement for a youth soccer club in a St. Louis paper. Parents wear out automobile tires in their endless travel to games and tournaments. Feeney occasionally comes off as a little too self-satisfied with his own resistance to this madness, but those moments are rare. He admits that he himself has been unable to opt out of the parental “Hunger Games” completely. He tells the story of taking his 6th grade daughter to a lacrosse double header despite the fact that she had picked up a lacrosse stick for the first time only a few weeks earlier. “Their actions were identifiable as ‘playing lacrosse,’” he writes, “only because they were wearing helmets with cage masks and clutching metal rods with nets at the end.”

Feeney spends a chapter on perhaps the most obvious intruder into family life, that nefarious thief of play, leisure, and self-esteem—digital technology. The Internet entered American life a promising innovation, timesaving communication, and for the kids, education in a painless, even entertaining form. Instead, it has turned children into addicts. It latches on to the pleasure centers of their brains and forces parents into the role of rehab counsellors, or worse, law enforcement.   

Feeney’s title alludes to Edmund Burke’s phrase “little platoons,” meaning the small-scale human associations that most command our affections and that check the bureaucratic power of larger institutions and of government. But the book also echoes mid 20th century social critics of postwar conformism like Christopher Lasch and Paul Goodman. Lasch was unique in his grasp of the powerful influences of mass media, consumerism, schools, and the helping professions invading private life. (What would Lasch make of the Internet?) But whereas the late historian regretted the family’s transformation into “a haven in the heartless world,” Feeney views the Anglo American ideal of family—its separation from the “grubby world of wage work, social trouble, and nosy government”—as a blessing. Some readers may find Feeney veering close to Victorian sentimentalism at times, but his depiction of the “unique intensity of family relations” and its shared rituals around holidays, meal times, and play, all of them “a living critique of, the inhuman forces that ruled the outside world,” should evoke a moment of recognition even for the cynical. 

“[My] hope for my children is that they will develop a robust inner life, a zone of private reflection, of nonconforming thoughts all their own, a stubborn reserve of character capable of distancing itself from outer opinion, comfortable with the risks of individuality,” Feeney writes in this fine book. His ambition is all the more crucial—and all the more arduous—in a culture so determined to squeeze individual identity into politically and economically expedient forms.  

Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She writes extensively on childhood, family issues, poverty, and cultural change in America.