We are told that competition is good for us, that it builds
character and pushes us to achieve excellence. We are also told that kids
need to learn to compete in order to survive and thrive as adults. What
if, in fact, the opposite is true?
So you decide to sit down with your family for a pleasant
evening of fun and companionship playing Scrabble. An hour or so later,
you’re not speaking to each other and you wonder where the initial social
impulse went! Or dad and son sit down to a game of Monopoly, which dad easily
wins; his son is crestfallen and slinks away to bed, leaving dad sad too,
and wondering if he should have slacked off and let his son win.
Or your child enters a science fair at school. The
project takes up an inordinate amount of her and your time. The pressure
is huge to win, place, or show. You feel the pressure too and end up “helping,”
which makes it more your project than hers. If the project wins the contest,
she will be rewarded, but – at least in the case of a few kids I’ve spoken
with who were honest enough to admit it – it will be a hollow victory.
School is predominately about competition: for the
teacher’s attention, for the best test scores and grades, for a spot on
the football team and the most goals, to hang out with the in-group. ‘Twas
ever so and, by my observation, it’s getting worse. Not until the post-grad
years of university are students able to focus on excellence in their own
fields of study, for their own merits, rather than on competitive rankings.
Some researchers have found that competition can have
“positive results” when used as a motivational technique in the classroom
– meaning that when students compete with each other to get better test
scores, overall scores increase. However, getting a good mark on a test
doesn’t necessarily mean the material has been learned; it can also mean
that the test taker is good at taking tests, or at least memorizes well.
Or it can be a result of “cheating” (also known, in
other contexts, as collaborating). Given the pressure of standardized testing,
which ranks and grades not only students but teachers and schools, it’s
not surprising that a lot of gaming the system goes on in schools.
On the flip side, research going back to the early
1970s has found that, in group educational settings, co-operation and collaboration
are more effective tools for learning than competition; competition creates
anxiety and can dampen motivation.
Beyond encouraging cheating – in school or elsewhere
(think doping in competitive sport) – competition is problematic in other
ways. Researchers like prolific author and clinical psychologist
John F. Schumaker have written about the body of research demonstrating
that children’s feelings of self-worth can become dependent on external
sources of evaluation as a result of comparison and competition – and on
how many people they have beaten.
Parenting author Alfie Kohn has also written about
competition and its perils for children. In his 1986 book
No Contest, he cites
hundreds of studies to back up his argument that our struggle to defeat
each other — at work, at school, at play, and at home — turns all of us
1991 article in the New York Times, Kohn points out: “The very
word ‘competitiveness’ . . . suggests a fundamental confusion between excellence,
on the one hand, and the desperate quest to beat people, on the other. These
two concepts are not only distinct in theory but often antithetical in practice.”
He elaborates on this in his 2014 book
The Myth Of The Spoiled Child: Coddled Kids, Helicopter Parents, and Other
Phony Crises: “When we set children against one another in contests
– from spelling bees to awards assemblies to science ‘fairs’ (that are really
contests), from dodge ball to honor rolls to prizes for the best painting
or the most books read – we teach them to confuse excellence with winning,
as if the only way to do something well is to outdo others.”
And setting kids against one another is, I think, a
large part of the problem. Kids, left to their own devices, may well race
to see who can get somewhere faster; then they’ll dash off somewhere else
with no gloating or sulking because of the results. Or, when they’re older,
they might keep repeating a task over and over in order to improve their
performance – whether it’s running or playing the piano – an activity that
could be called competing with oneself. And that can be character- and skill-building.
But I am convinced that the winner-take-all competitions that kids neither
originate nor control will always be destructive.
In spite of all the negatives, parents often allow
their own competitive anxiety to influence their children. We all know parents
who push their children hard to succeed academically in aid of securing
a spot in university and ultimately a well-paying job. (Not that those aren't
valid goals...for the child.) I’ve also seen that parental goal at work
when families are simply playing games together, although the adults are
often horrified when their behavior is pointed out.
Some parents also have a huge ego involvement in their
kids’ progress, according to psychology professor and author
Wendy Grolnick. While some children
and young people turn off under such pressure, others end up with anxiety-triggered
illnesses. Grolnick’s message to competitive parents is to nurture their
children’s autonomy and confidence in their own abilities, rather than pushing
them to compete.
Co-operative games inventor
Deacove and his family have been manufacturing the Family Pastimes line
of cooperative games in Canada since 1972. Deacove’s games allow people
of different ages and abilities to play side by side and not worry about
being wiped out on an unfair playing field. He uses Musical Chairs as an
example of how a simple, common party game that’s supposed to be about having
fun and socializing kids really fosters aggression and elimination. Deacove
is quick to assert that his games don’t protect children from failure. “Our
games are designed to offer realistic challenges,” he says.
But the cultural habit of competing and confronting
adversaries runs deep. On the other hand, when kids learn and play cooperatively,
they are confronting obstacles while developing social interaction and problem-solving
skills, as well as communication and sharing ability, trust, empathy, and
collaboration – whether the game’s objective is reached or not.
Still, many parents and teachers worry that kids need
to learn about competition, since the working world is competitive. I, on
the other hand, argue that what employers want these days is not competitors
but people who can work collaboratively. As I
wrote in this magazine in 2010, the industrial model of work design
is becoming outmoded, and it is taking the industrial model of education
along with it. Instead, employers are increasingly looking for workers who
are flexible and adaptable, who are creative and entrepreneurial thinkers
and researchers. They want people who can collaborate and network, and who
are good at conflict resolution, problem solving, and negotiating. They
aren’t looking for competitive loners with fragile self-esteem who are programmed
to win at any cost and crumple if they don’t.
You could say that cooperation beats competition
hands down! But it's a complex topic that is deeply embedded in our culture.
And it's one that all parents, unschoolers and others alike, would be wise
to think about.
Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine's founder and editor. She is also the author
of thirteen books, has been both a journalist and mother for
over forty years. She has come to the conclusion in the past few years
that there isn't much, if anything, that is fully within parental control.
And that's not such a bad thing after all.