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At around 11:15 p.m. on May 30, all eyes were on the eight competitors still remaining on the Scripps National Spelling Bee stage — the soon-to-be “OctoChamps” who would be crowned joint winners, breaking the record for most competitors to tie for first place and setting off a media frenzy.
But as a mother of two, and as an anthropologist who has attended 15 spelling bees around the country in the last six years, my thoughts were with the parents. In that dramatically lit, cavernous ballroom in Maryland, I watched them watch their preternaturally poised children — 12-, 13-, and 14-year-olds — who had been on stage and on live television for eight hours over the course of the day. And even though I had seen it first-hand while writing my book, Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s New Path to Success, I still struggled to comprehend the relentless preparation those children had undertaken to maintain that level of concentration.
Their remarkable performance in this competition illustrated many things: diligent practice, orthographic prowess, and grace under pressure. But more than anything, these children demonstrated focus — an enviable ability to marshal years of study into two-minute feats of mental clarity, under incredible pressure, when it most mattered. Also striking was how cheerful, pleasant, and, well, normal these spelling champions seemed. Did their parents somehow instill this superpower? Were these kids born prodigies? Or was something else going on here?
The answer I heard again and again as I spoke with “Bee parents,” as I’ve come to call them, was the same: They had seen a spark. Something had ignited in their child when they competed, and they had painstakingly fostered it.
The OctoChamps, like hundreds of others who made it to the National Spelling Bee, found something deeply exciting and inspiring about this competition. Some are good readers, others love language, and they all set out to conquer the dictionary. They didn’t do it alone, though. Several parents told me it was their child’s dream to win, so they made it their own dream as well.
Most Bee parents are, like me, Generation Xers (born 1965–1980). Our generation has largely rejected the constant hovering of “helicopter” parenting and the path-clearing of “snowplow” parenting associated with our baby boomer predecessors, who raised the millennials (born 1981–1996).
With such close parental micromanaging, many millennials became accustomed to the “everybody gets a trophy” approach of appreciating participation and downplaying competition. In this cultural logic, extensively cultivating a child’s spark wasn’t the point. Indeed, fanning the flames of such ambition could lead to disappointment, frustration, and losing — all unpleasant things that baby boomer helicopter parents wanted to minimize for their children.
But we Gen Xers, known for our societal disillusionment and slacker aesthetic, seem to be taking a different approach in raising Generation Z (born after 1996). We have watched millennials struggle in every aspect of early adulthood, from college admissions to finding a vocation. And we’ve seen — in their gig-economy incomes, social media FOMO, and “millennial burnout” — startling evidence of how competitive every aspect of society has become for young people.
As a result, many Gen Xers have developed a style of parenting that encourages our kids to be more independent and try new things, and doesn’t shy away from competition. Some demographers call this a “stealth fighter” technique, in which we tend to do less micromanaging and more surveilling from a distance, intervening only when necessary. “Grit” is the parenting buzzword of our era, connoting passion, motivation, perseverance, and a get-up-and-dust-yourself-off attitude to failure. Fostering grit means aiming for tangible wins (like a spelling bee), rather than praising everyone for simply showing up.
For their part, Gen Z seem to be leaning in to the increasingly competitive environment they were born into. They see children on television facing off in advanced cooking shows and dance contests. They watch peers become social media influencers on Instagram, or promoting their own businesses on Twitter. Kids today compete and succeed at many things that were once the domain of adults.
The Scripps National Spelling Bee, too, has become dramatically more competitive. Competitors and their parents have engaged in a kind of arms race with the Scripps organization: The words get harder as the hours kids spend preparing increases each year.
But contrary to popular perception, Bee parents are not overbearing “stage parents” who drag their children along and push them to win at all costs. Much has been made of the fact that seven of the OctoChamps are Indian American, as is every winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee since 2008. Their parents, many of them born and raised outside the U.S., practice a particularly intense version of Gen X’s stealth fighter parenting — one that brings in aspects of their own upbringings and their experiences as immigrants to this country.
While a growing movement argues for the value of being a generalist and allowing kids to dabble instead of specializing too early, these Bee parents — many of them highly educated STEM professionals — don’t buy it. They have worked hard to make it in a competitive society, and the economic stability and cultural clout to not worry about the next generation’s success is not a luxury many of them have. To be sure, no parents I met had any designs that resembled the infamous “Tiger Mother” style of parenting, meting out punishment and verbal abuse en route to accomplishment. Even so, the idea of open-ended exploration is at best daunting, at worst a nightmare of instability.
Of course, it’s one thing to help your child find their spark; it’s another altogether to hone it to the point where they are named a national champion. Bee parents form a complex team to groom, train, and support their competitor through the tumultuous rounds of competition. They likely pay for coaching and augment it with their own drilling, encouragement, and support. They’ve also given up a lot of their free time, trips, and their own hobbies to plunge the depths of the dictionary with their kids. The competitive spelling circuit becomes a part of their own leisure and social lives, and these parents turn contests into family outings, becoming friends with families who are also regulars.
It’s a lot! And as we all know, parenting today is hard even without a national competition to win. For many of us, especially those living in dense urban areas, the challenge isn’t just providing for and nurturing our children; it’s also about optimizing their every experience when time is at a premium and resources are limited. As the recent college bribery scandal showed, even the most privileged families are embroiled in a grim struggle over access to elite education — one that can start as early as pre-school.
The reality for most of us is that we’re not trying to raise a champion. Odds are, you don’t have a prodigy on your hands. (I don’t, either.) Still, we can’t help but wonder whether our kids should be doing more — more studying, more extracurriculars, more traveling, more volunteering. We want to help them find what sparks their energy and creativity, and we want to raise kids that can focus, an ability that’s increasingly being seen as a key to success and happiness.
So what is the humane way to help your young ones find this quality? If we acknowledge that it all starts with a spark, how do kids find what truly excites them amidst the endless options that surround them?
Finding a way to encourage exploration without completely overextending our children and ourselves is the major challenge for parents of Gen Z. As I spent time with the elite spellers who made it to the National Spelling Bee stage, and their families, a few broadly applicable practices stood out:
- Encourage your children to try new activities. If they’re nervous, suggest they team up with a friend. Doing new things with a trusted buddy can make a big difference, especially for reluctant or anxious kids.
- Keep it casual. If your kid sees that it’s no big deal for you when they don’t like something, or when they fail, they won’t have to worry about disappointing you. This helps keep them open to trying new things.
- Be observant. Pay close attention to what grabs your child’s imagination, and you could be surprised at their interest, ability, and focus.
- Emphasize the experience, not the outcome. Focus on what they’re learning along the way, or how they’ve picked up a new approach to seeing or doing something. Sure, you can tell them there’s always a next time for winning, but teaching your kid how to manage disappointment or failure is a fantastic life skill. Someday they, and society, will thank you.
Of course, none of this is a recipe to create a child prodigy or a spelling bee champion. But by helping a child to find their spark and focus, you might end up with something just as amazing: a young person with an open mind, who doesn’t shrink away from new challenges or fear failure.