Little Platoons

A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age


By Matt Feeney

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This eye-opening book brilliantly explores the true roots of over-parenting, and makes a case for the vital importance of family life.

Parents naturally worry about the future. They want to prepare their children to compete in an uncertain world. But often, argues political philosopher and father of three Matt Feeney, today's worried parents surrender their family's autonomy to gain a leg up in this competition.

In the American ideal, family life is a sacred and private sphere, distinct from the outside world. But in our hypercompetitive times, Feeney shows, parents have become increasingly willing to let the inner life of the family be colonized by outside forces that promise better futures for their kids: prestigious preschools, "educational" technologies, youth sports leagues, a multitude of enrichment activities, and — most of all — college. A provocative, eye-opening book for any parent who suspects their kids' stuffed schedules are not serving their best interests, Little Platoons calls us to rediscover the distinctive, profound solidarity of family life.


chapter one

Parenting in Public

A Speculative Theory of Overparenting

ILOVED IT WHEN OUR KIDS WERE BABIES, ESPECIALLY THE first six months—holding my infant child, the ecstasies of obligation and unease, being bound to serve a baby’s primal needs for adult humming and staring and ignore my own irksome needs for food and constant movement. But things were especially good with our second and third kids, because in the early months of their lives I also slept great. Juliet co-slept with those two, in a separate room, on a mattress on the floor next to the empty crib, so that the baby could nurse on demand and Juliet didn’t have to sleepwalk down the hall several times each night, and I could enjoy six months of peaceful nights in a queen-sized bed I had all to myself. But then my sleep vacation and the baby’s blissful deal of sleep-nursing would end when Juliet returned to the queen bed and we trained the kid to sleep alone in the crib. We used the “cry it out method” of sleep training at this point, which sounds harsh for the kid and was definitely agonizing for the parents, but we suffered through it only briefly—like five or ten minutes a night, for a week or so with both kids. We had to do something different. We’d botched the sleep thing so badly with their big sister, who raged against sleep through her first year and began escaping her crib as soon as she could—sounding that alarming thump as, in her final bid for liberation, she released her grip and her little body hit the floor—and who was still defiant and manipulative at bedtime when her younger sister was going down quietly and sleeping through the night.

These are dear memories—there’s even some proud amusement in the ones about our oldest thumping heavily onto her bedroom floor, headfirst for all we knew. So it’s kind of sad to imagine having submitted them, as confessions or advice or requests for advice, to the Internet of Parents. I mean the magazines and blogs, the message boards and social media threads where the “sleep training wars” rage, simultaneous with the “breastfeeding wars,” which are partly subskirmishes in the “mommy wars,” but are also partly their own separate things. (The term “mommy wars” generally denotes online arguments between working and stay-at-home mothers.) We’d have been criticized for the co-sleeping, which, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome. Devotees of attachment parenting might denounce us for our sadistic sleep training. Someone sensitive to gender inequities would probably object to our parental sleeping arrangement, the woman bearing the sole burden of nursing labor, the sleep privilege seized by the entitled man, his preening grossness in describing it. When you read the magazine articles and blog posts, or follow the threads on the message boards, this is what you find: parents highly but insecurely invested in their own methods, wishing to support other parents in their parenting labors but ready to read other people’s differing choices as personal attacks on their own choices, and, of course, ready to defend themselves against these attacks.

In other words, it’s a touchy business, raising kids, being a family in twenty-first-century America. Parents often find themselves looking over their shoulders, feeling exposed to a lineup of ungenerous gazes, hostile judges both real and imagined. This is a little counterintuitive, if you think about it, especially in America. The Anglo-American ideal of family life stresses its social separateness, the veil of privacy that is supposed to surround and define the family unit, delimit the sacred zone of children and mothers, and sometimes fathers, from the fallen world outside, the grubby world of wage work, social trouble, and nosy government. This ideology dates back to the Victorian era and the Industrial Revolution, but its romantic view of domestic life persists, in the dreamy aspirations we entertain for our home lives, the immersive child-rearing and spiritualized consumerism through which we seek not just personal fulfilment but a sort of religious transcendence. That may sound critical as I describe it, or at least ironic, but it’s pretty much how Juliet and I are trying to do it. And, I have to say, when it all comes together, it is pretty great. It is transcendent. I highly recommend it. That we still observe their model of family as a unit of higher meaning suggests those romantic Victorians were onto something.

But all the meaning in our little families ends up overspilling its homey vessel, the domestic sphere. Being so important to us parents, being so rich with emotional pleasure and moral duty and existential risk, the private little world you make with your spouse and kids turns out to be really interesting to other people and other institutions as well. You’re in charge of your children, in other words, but you don’t own them. You’re not free to do what you will with them, in the government’s and the police’s view of family things, even inside the metaphorical fortress or castle or haven that is your private home. And if you go online to read up on what other parents in your situation are doing, you’re going to find some strong opinions. You may find people judging the very things you’re doing in your private haven in sharply public language, language that brings the government and the police into the matter, at least notionally. You may find yourself accused of child abuse (sleep training), or child endangerment (co-sleeping).

And when you bring your child out into the world because kids need vitamin D from the sun and you need caffeine from coffee, the emotional language you share with your little one is still the private idiom you wrought at home, though perhaps with the silly and sloppy and angry extremes shaved off (or perhaps not). You don’t adopt a conference-call manner with your child just because you’re at Starbucks and strangers can hear you. You coo, you cuddle, you sing, you love, sometimes you chastise. If you’re a newish mom you might nurse, in the light of the big sidewalk window of a franchise coffee establishment. As a parent toting or strolling a child, you’ve shown up using certain gear, in a certain mood, wearing a certain expression and certain clothes, about all of which certain strangers might be forming certain opinions. Your child, being a child, might do things notable to nearby strangers, like suckling from a woman’s breast, or giggling, or crying, or crapping. And these things being notable from strangers’ perspectives, strangers will note them.

Here is the curious nature of parenthood, as a legal predicament and a lived experience. It is a public thing done in private. Indeed nothing opens private life so fully to public interest and intervention as the vocation of parenthood, the presence of children. And as it is a public thing done in private, it is also a private thing done in public. Your kids are still your kids even when you’re out on the street or at the mall or at church, even when they’re fascinating and charming and irritating strangers. A person has to cross a chasm of etiquette to correct a child in front of her parents, and so it’s not often done. But, in the difficult and embarrassing moments to which selfish children subject their vulnerable parents in public, the parent knows, the parent feels, that just because strangers are holding their tongues, that doesn’t mean they’re withholding their judgments.

Child-rearing places parents in a web of interest and attention, which can provoke a robust sort of self-awareness in them, some mix of pride in raising adorable members of the next generation and anxiety that people might think they’re doing it wrong. As a parent out in public you absorb the warm regard of pro-child people who smile at you on the sidewalk, and you register the varieties of impatience and disapproval, expressed or implied or imagined, from the other sort of people.

I started thinking of these parenting-in-public dilemmas after having to discipline my kids outside the house, among different sorts of parents. Now, as many social scientists of family life have noted, today’s educated, middle- and upper-middle-class parents tend to practice what’s known as “authoritative” discipline, rather than the “authoritarian” discipline more common among working-class parents in America—that is, we never hit or spank, and we explain instead of yelling, and we listen for the child’s perspective rather than demanding that kids just shut up and obey us.1 Of course Juliet and I mostly use the method proper to our social class: the talky, solicitous means of correcting our children known as authoritative.

But I was raised the other way. When it came to disciplining his six children, and especially his four sons, my suave, kind, self-cultured eightysomething father was the same sort of Old Testament dad all my friends had in the Detroit neighborhood where we lived until I was in middle school. The model of fatherly discipline I absorbed in my own childhood was fully authoritarian. I could get away with talking back to my mom, as long as it wasn’t so egregious she told my dad, but there was no debating with my dad, no respectful back-and-forth, no heartfelt giving of fatherly reasons why I should have acted differently just then. He didn’t give reasons. He gave orders. He didn’t express humanistic disappointment when I screwed up. He unleashed the thundering anger of fathers throughout time. And in response I swallowed all my wise comebacks on pain of, well, pain. Indeed I can neither remember nor imagine having argued with him in the way my kids argue with me all the time. As a father I accept the research that says physical discipline might not be the best way to manage your kids, but I loved and respected my dad then and hold no grudge against him now. The authoritarian reflex is deep inside me, even if I generally ignore its parenting advice.

So when I find myself dealing with my unruly kids in front of parents I take to be working class, and who are using the same style of discipline my parents used on me, I’m frankly torn. In the small Michigan town where my parents now live, where I spend several weeks a year, these parents tend to be white, while in Oakland where I live they’re usually African American. In such cases I have a deep, almost visceral sense of needing to look respectable to these parents through my style of discipline, as if I’m performing parenthood for my own parents. I might even change how I act a little, under the (imagined) gaze of the black mom using direct orders in a sharp tone to manage her two little kids in the food court. I might sharpen my own tone, speak with heightened impatience, in the imperative voice, give my dawdling or misbehaving kid the verbal equivalent of a smack upside the head, like the real one I might have gotten had I been so distracted or disobedient. In these moments the image of myself following the parenting protocols of my social class—dropping to one knee and gently, vainly explaining to my bothersome kid the reasons why Papa is upset right now—strikes me as dishonorable, if not weak and pathetic. To the mom in the food court—I can’t help it—I don’t want to look weak. I want to look as respectably tough as I remember my dad being.

Of course this confession doesn’t illustrate the superiority of one sort of parenting over another. But it does suggest how unavoidably social the experience of being a parent is—how social attention converges on parents, how parental self-awareness radiates into social space, especially when that space contains other parents. A more typical example was presented to me by another dad recently. I’d dropped off my son at school and was walking home when a five- or six-year-old boy, barely noticing me under his big helmet, wobbled toward me on a scooter he was quite bad at riding. We were set to pass each other at a little bottleneck, a spot where the sidewalk was narrowed to one lane by someone’s untrimmed landscaping. So I stepped aside to let this boy through just as his father, a few steps behind him, called forward, “Henry… make room!”

Now this parental plea was nominally directed at little Henry, but unless you understand it as meant for me it makes no sense. Not only was little Henry concentrating too hard on his wobbling handlebars to note his father’s words, but he was at the very limit of his ability to control the scooter at all. Had he actually diverted the mental resources needed to attend to his dad and then “make room” for me, who’d now stepped off the sidewalk, he’d have driven off the sidewalk himself, if not just toppled over. I was perfectly charmed in standing aside like a bullfighter and waving the little guy past me, but the dad trailing him couldn’t assume that, or he didn’t want to appear to assume that, or to assume anything about my view of his scootering son. His son couldn’t and didn’t bring me under his consideration, but his dad wanted me to know that he had. I’ve said that kind of thing many, many times in sidewalk traffic, a comically futile bit of parental guidance. At the shallowest conscious level, as I said it, I surely thought of it as parental guidance, but it was really a gesture of consideration to an adult who might be inconvenienced, minimally, possibly, by my kid’s unadult way of moving through space. “Careful!” “Remember to look up!” “Someone’s coming!” Never has the unseeing, unsteady passage of any of my kids been made safer or more convenient for strangers by my saying these things, but with them I have acknowledged to many strangers: Hey… I see you there… I don’t know if you’re one of those people I need to apologize to about my three-year-old veering in your way because she’s a three-year-oldbut if soI don’t want you to think we think we own the whole sidewalk. The valence of this signaling changes when you know the other adult is another parent. When it’s another parent you might be less worried about the rank disapproval of anti-kid people, the ones who roll their eyes at obnoxious brats and entitled parents increasing global warming and thinking they own the whole sidewalk, but you do want to present yourself as competent and considerate, at least as competent and considerate as that other parent is.

In other words, parenting in public, among other parents, is by nature comparative and thus subtly (or overtly) competitive. I don’t mean to say it’s egotistical or vicious, or even unfriendly. It’s just the natural expression of the fact that humans are socially sensitive, status-conscious beings, especially in public settings that bring them under each other’s gaze, within a shared practice, as equals—an academic classroom, a pickup basketball game, a dinner party, raising your kids among other people raising their kids. As parents, we’re paying attention to other parents, who, we suspect, are paying attention to us. We want to look good to each other. We want to give a respectable showing, conducting our private labors of raising children in the public world we make and share with other parents.

These social rigors have only grown in the last few decades as parents have become more involved in their kids’ daily lives, in ways that, I suspect, have further intensified this involvement. Parents being more involved with their kids has involved them more constantly, more systematically, with each other, as parents. Parents chauffeuring their kids to school and parks, practices and games and playdates, instead of letting kids schlep themselves to these things, has exposed them, much more so than previous generations of parents, to the nervous, comparative gaze of other parents.

IT’S A SOURCE OF QUIET PRIDE BETWEEN JULIET AND ME that we throw minimalist birthday parties for our kids. Over a decade of birthday parties where our kids and their guests always have a great time, we’ve never rented out a facility or an establishment for one of these parties, nor hired anyone to clown for or paint the faces of the little guests. We always hold our parties at home, and we tend to keep the guest lists small. Of course our local circumstances let us pull this off and, so, help obscure our commitment to doing as little as possible, birthday-wise. Unlike me and many of our parent friends, Juliet is from Oakland, where we live. Her parents and sister live here, and her sister’s husband and their two little kids, and her brother lives close enough to make it to most of his nieces’ and nephews’ birthday parties. So even before classmates and friends have been invited, the guest list of our kids’ parties already has four or five extra adults on it, plus two siblings and two cousins. This way we can invite only three or four of the most obvious candidates among the birthday kid’s friends and still achieve that party feeling of noise and chaos. And somehow the presence of six or seven adults of various ages lends an aspect of substance, of ceremonial bigness and variety, to a party whose actual ceremonial outlay consists of a delivered pizza, a cake, and a half gallon of vanilla ice cream.

But it doesn’t take much self-reflection for me to wonder if, in making these ceremonies so much easier and cheaper for ourselves than they are for our fellow parents, we might be violating some ethical compact. Maybe we’re shirking. Maybe in observing one scruple, not overindulging our children, we’re violating another, reciprocating within the social system of kids’ birthday celebrations. Once they’re in the crazy swim of a minimalist party, kids don’t care. The novelty of the day and its surroundings, their license to make noise and run around and eat cake, with several more friends than normal, is enough to convince a small gang of eight-year-olds that what they’re at is a party, and the party is good, even if there’s been no trip to Bouncy Land. And if the kids are happy with a bare-bones party—and everyone’s less vulnerable to the manic buildup and tearful disappointments and logistical snafus of an elaborate party—it’s hard to see why parents should choose the harder, more fraught, more expensive sort of party. That is, unless we understand the norm of bigger parties as rooted not in squishy parents indulging bratty kids but in socially sensitive adults operating within a web of tacit obligations resembling what Marcel Mauss, the great French anthropologist, called a “gift economy.”2

I’m not the first person to apply Marcel Mauss’s landmark 1925 work The Gift to the ceremonial side of family life. Many sociologists and social historians have compared today’s lavish weddings to what Mauss calls the “potlatch,” the feast in which a tribal leader hosts a visiting rival and attests himself a great man, in front of this rival, by lavishly wasting his own possessions. (Mauss argues that the potlatch is found among “archaic” peoples all over the world, from Polynesia to the Arctic. Accounts from colonial America clearly show that the native peoples had a view of economic exchange much less utilitarian, much more ceremonial and honor related than the Europeans they traded with.)

Mauss describes the potlatch in this form as a “purely sumptuary destruction of wealth that has been accumulated in order to outdo the rival chief.” The tribal potlatch features not just the wasteful outlay of food and possessions but, sometimes, their active destruction, the intentional, theatrical smashing of pots and bowls, for example, as a chief’s demonstration that he has a wealth of pots and bowls to smash. In the academic’s wedding comparison, the modern stand-in for the tribal chief is the bride’s father, who looks on with nervous indulgence as his wife and daughter plan a reception that will cost—per his ritual obligations—more than he can afford.

Were sociologists and historians to take up the expensive kid’s party as they’ve taken up the lavish wedding, they’d probably view it as yet another modern-day potlatch. We are, after all, talking about a big party. But in a potlatch the status contest is explicit. The rivalrous pairing of chief and chief frames the whole drama. It’s not like that with a birthday party. Rather, the system of kids’ birthday parties resembles the network of ritualized giving—the “gift economy”—of tribal people in the same group. We parents might be rivals in some very specific or very abstract sense—competing over our kids’ playing time in club volleyball, their future job prospects in the global economy—but we’re also friends, or members of the same school community, or whatever you call the relationship of near strangers who text back and forth for several days about a playdate. In very few cases will the birthday parties we throw have a bowl-smashing feel. In our world, to carry on like a tribal chief, to make an overt bid for greatness in party throwing, would be considered a little gross.

Still, as Mauss describes them, the everyday relations and gift exchanges are also governed by standards of honor and status. They are “agonistic” and competitive too, only much less overtly so than among rival chiefs. You give because a past generosity obliges you, as a matter of honor, to give. You accept because accepting says you’re an honorable and able person, unafraid to take on the obligation that accepting entails, that is, to give at some time in the future. A gift economy is thus a system of reciprocal gestures. This reciprocity is both cooperative and competitive, communal and individualist. In a society built upon gift exchange, people preserve social relations, paradoxically, by tending their own status.

An advantage that tribal peoples have over us modern parents is that they generally know what’s expected of them. The exchange of gifts among these peoples is often closely scripted. Each gift belongs to what Mauss calls a “total” system. In the tribal settings he describes, every act of giving is understood as part of an unbroken history of such reciprocal gestures. The integrity of the social system mapped and nourished by these exchanges is taken for granted.

We parents aren’t so lucky. Our social worlds are much more broken up. Like tribal peoples, we feel expectations of reciprocity, but they are vague and merely implicit, and they probably apply, on the top end, to grandiose gestures rather than minimal or miserly ones (at least I hope so). You’d hesitate before criticizing other parents for being unreciprocally stingy with their kid’s party. Maybe they’re secretly broke, or going through a rough patch. Indeed criticizing other parents for not being extravagant is a good way to make yourself look cheap. So being overextravagant is more likely to strain social relations. A dad proposing to take your kid and twenty of his friends to the Super Bowl would be both an obvious boon and a niggling communal problem. Perhaps without even realizing it, people would take offense. Unlike in some tribal settings the offending people wouldn’t be ostracized, or beaten to death by their relatives, and some parents might find the outsized generosity admirable, or be so happy their kid got to go to the Super Bowl that they overlooked the normative breach. But the offense against reciprocity, making your peers look poor or stingy in front of their kids, would probably register in other ways, eye-rolling between spouses, critical confidences among the other moms and dads about Tom and Doris, the show-offs.

But even where you don’t have outliers and megalomaniacs blowing the proportions, such a balance as there is remains an unstable one, with a constant bias for novelty and slight excess. You can see how such a dynamic, being hard to read, might get out of hand, parents signaling to each other, as part of this system of reciprocity, but through ceremonial gestures designed to make a public declaration both heartfelt and a little complicated. They’re proclaiming their love for the birthday kid to the kid herself and to other parents, while extending generosities to these other parents’ kids proportionate to the generosities these parents have extended to their kid. The uncertainties multiply in this setting. The question lingers whether you’ve done enough for your kid, and whether other people will think you’ve done enough for theirs, and whether this gesture is truly in keeping with the tribal history of kids’ birthday parties, and whether the core patrons of this party, their kids, will think so, and whether the other parents will think their kids think so. Some kids are hard to please, or so you’ve heard. Some parents are weird about their kids, or so you worry. You just don’t know for sure. So the safest thing is to maybe go a little overboard to placate these imagined worst-case versions of your party guests and their parents, your fellow participants in this uncertain, unstable gift economy. It would take only small initial changes in the way parents treated their kids, small increases in the time they spend out in the larger social world with these kids, for these changes to grow and intensify as they pass through the social circuitry made by these parents. From, say, baby boomer parents resolving to be warmer and more present with their children than their own chilly and detached postwar parents were, could grow a whole civilization of overparenting simply because parents, in their function as parents, now made up an anxious and besotted social system with each other. This system, since it’s the result of feedback loops still in place, would continue to grow more anxious and besotted all the time.

I think—or, I’d like to hypothesize—that the practice known by the derisive phrase “everyone gets a trophy” is rooted in a similar dynamic. I don’t mean the generic practice of lavishing excess praise on kids, which that phrase is used as a sort of synecdoche to represent. I mean the literal practice of giving participation trophies to Little Leaguers and youth soccer players and other young athletes. I’m interested in these discrete moments of social parenting, the webs of expectation we come to occupy simply in sharing public space with each other, as parents, operating in public under each other’s judging gaze, in ways earlier parents did not.3 An important detail here is that—at the youngest age levels, where the competitive pressures are lowest and the participation trophy most common—the coaches I’m talking about are almost always parents.

Giving participation trophies seems to have expanded into a common practice in the early 1990s, and this coincides with the emergence of the belief—incorrect, as it turns out—that kids need high self-esteem to succeed in school and life, and so commenters have naturally fingered the latter belief as a cause of the former practice. Together they make an efficient way to mock narcissistic “Millennials.” But these things also coincide with an increase in the practice of parents simply showing up, being present, in public, for everything their kids do.4 A Little League coach giving his players a send-off at the end of a season is going to have a different, heightened sense of ceremonial obligation if those kids’ parents have been hanging around all season, lingering at the margins of every practice, never missing any games.

That is, a coach who arrives at the last game or the end-of-year pizza party with a duffel bag full of trophies for nothing in particular is probably worried less about his players’ self-esteem than he is about his own relationship with those kids’ parents. He’s tackling the ceremonial quandary posed by their constant presence. They’ve been hanging around all season, unlike when he was a kid and he and his friends rode their bikes to Little League practice, and maybe one of their parents went to most


  • "Little Platoons offers revelatory insights into the workings of institutions that cluster around the family and feed off it, turning our most intimate loyalties to bureaucratic purposes while reshaping parents and children alike into compliant drones. In this most wise and spirited book, Matt Feeney recalls us to the family's inherent potential-as a little conspiracy of defiance, a nursery of secret joys and private meanings. Inside jokes! Along the way, he scrambles our culture war categories of progressive and conservative. To read Little Platoons is to experience a critical awakening of the rarest kind, one that affirms our love for our own and fills the breast with a new determination. Here is the work of a father-judicious, humane, and ready to fight."—Matthew B. Crawford, New York Times-bestselling author of Shop Class as Soulcraft
  • "Little Platoons is a brilliant, acutely observant analysis of why parents are slowly driving themselves crazy as they try to launch their kids into satisfying and successful futures. Matt Feeney writes as a fellow sufferer, with a style that is so welcoming and engaging that you want him to be your best friend."—Barry Schwartz, author of The Costs of Living, The Paradox of Choice, and Practical Wisdom

On Sale
Mar 9, 2021
Page Count
320 pages
Basic Books

Matt Feeney

About the Author

Matt Feeney holds a PhD in political philosophy from Duke University, and he has written for the National Review, New Yorker, Slate, Pacific Standard, and Weekly Standard.He lives with his wife and three children in Oakland, California.

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