Editor’s Note: Shalini Shankar is Professor of Anthropology and Asian American Studies at Northwestern University. She is the author of “Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s New Path to Success.” The views expressed here are the author’s. Read more opinion on CNN.
This op-ed was published on May 30, 2019, before the finals of the National Spelling Bee.
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.
To excel in competitions like these, kids develop expertise early on, sometimes in several challenging areas. Nihar Janga, co-champion of the 2016 Scripps Bee, just won the 2019 National Geographic Bee. But grooming kids like these to be experts wasn’t always so common.
Researchers credit Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980) “stealth-fighter” parents like Lydeana Martin for not hovering like “helicopter parents” – a style most often attributed to Baby Boomers (born 1945-1965) – but instead surveilling from a distance and intervening when needed.
Compared with helicopter parents, stealth-fighter parents give kids more space to navigate their own challenges while still advocating for them. Over the course of Shayley’s public schooling, her mom advocated for educational opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t have existed, advocacy that paid off. Shayley thrived in high school and is exploring her interest in linguistics (among other areas) as a student at Yale University.
If we consider what gives Generation Z kids who compete in the spelling bee today their distinct character, looking at the range of Gen X parenting styles can provide insights. The way Gen Xers parent also varies considerably based on whether they are US-born or non-US-born.
In my book, I identify “Bee Parenting” as a way that some Indian American Gen X parents value educational achievement and set goals for their children. Indian immigrants who are professionals and who came to the United States under the Immigration Act of 1990, with STEM strengths, and other advanced qualifications, have their own parenting priorities.
Some of these overlap with the infamous “Tiger Mother” archetype offered by Amy Chua and invoked by Shayley Martin. Chua’s memoir revealed so-called “Asian” methods for demanding perfection and discipline from her children that rocked white middle-class parents to their core. The ensuing outcry critiqued not only her approach, but also her priorities: shouldn’t childhood be about fun? Play-based childhood, a staple among white middle-class Baby Boomers, is the model in which many Millennials were raised.
Bee Parents, as I observed them, would readily agree with the idea that childhood isn’t primarily about fun; it is about building educational knowledge, skills and preparation for the adult world. Bee Parents, far more balanced and nurturing than the Tiger Mother, draw strength from their children’s accomplishments, sometimes more so than their own.
This was certainly the case with 2015 National Spelling Bee co-champion Gokul Venkatachalam’s parents, who immigrated to St. Louis, Missouri, from India. Mrs. Venkatachalam does not work outside the home, but she took on the arduous labor of preparing vocabulary and spelling lists for Gokul.
She struggled to learn the dictionary’s pronunciation guide, but her motivation, she said, came from Gokul’s keen interest in the topic. She admitted, “It was tough in the beginning. We learned slowly, from errors, and from his mistakes. Whenever he made mistakes, I learned from it.”
Gen X stealth-fighter parents emphasize teaching their children how to be successful rather than simply doing things for them. Education researchers Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace observe in “Generation Z Goes to College,” “The level of independence with which Generation X was raised has set an interesting stage for their own parenting. Taking a lesson from their hard-working parents, they strive to balance work and family.”
There are overlaps between the largely US-born stealth-fighter and primarily immigrant Bee Parent styles, even if they differ with regard to intensity. Bee Parenting is shifting the standards and means of achievement, and also the measure of how much more kids nowadays need to do to succeed. Bee Parents unequivocally approach childhood as a structured, education-intensive time to build human capital, making the idea of “spelling careers,” as spellers call them, and other childhood “careers” more commonplace.
As terms to explain different parenting styles, helicopter, stealth-fighter and Bee Parenting are of course limited. Anyone who has children knows that parenting is a complex, emotionally charged daily balance of individual personalities and needs; it is shaped by time and resource constraints as much as it is by idealized values.
Still, if stealth-fighter and Bee Parenting help explain how Gen Z is being raised and how these approaches differ from the helicopter parenting Millennials experienced, we can piece together a much clearer understanding of what drives Gen Z to thrive, compete and succeed. These attributes will be on full display at the National Spelling Bee championship finals.