When four-time Scripps National Spelling Bee competitor Shayley Martin wasn't feeling challenged in her Floyd, Virginia, elementary school, teachers had a hard time keeping her interested.
Her mother Lydeana, who spoke with me while I was researching my book "Beeline," advocated for Shayley with school officials, but faced resistance.
"People perceive you as this really pushy mom that's trying to torture their kid," Lydeana told me over a lunch with her and Shayley. Shayley, then 14, grimaced and interjected, "When my mom talks about this she always sounds like one of those freaky Tiger Moms, because it's like, 'My child needs the best!'"
Shayley and her mother are like many parents I met over the six years that I conducted research at spelling bees. I began to recognize distinctive traits in Generation Z (born after 1996), including that it is the most diverse, containing the most mixed race kids and children of immigrants.
These kids are being raised in a competitive childhood environment. The National Spelling Bee
(held this week in Washington, DC), which has become tougher each year, is now but one of many kid-focused televised contests.
The scale and intensity of the Bee are similar to other televised children's contests. Junior versions of shows like "Chopped," "Dancing with the Stars," "Project Runway," and others reveal just how many kids are focusing on becoming experts at complex skills at a young age.
Although only a small subset of children participate in such contests, they may offer a window into part of this generation's parenting priorities. It also suggests a shift may be underway-- away from a play-based childhood to one marked by competition and recognition, especially through digital platforms.
While some white middle-class parents may lament or outright reject such a shift, others are embracing a performance-oriented childhood and doing their best to keep up with pace-setting immigrants. Those who have done this have a better chance of being on the National Spelling Bee stage, and likely other platforms, over the course of their childhood.