From national elections to Olympic races, where some stand taller than others, competition appears to be the reality of our modern life, and not surprisingly, it would seem to be a parent’s job to prepare their children for the reality of scarce resources and rewards. The need to win and beat those around us typically starts early; we’re rewarded and praised when we do well in tests and exams. Competition is seen as a beneficial motivating force, but it can often have a destructive effect, especially on children.
In focusing on and valuing extrinsic rewards (grades, marks, medals, etc.), we risk overlooking some important intrinsic drivers, such as the joy of learning, the satisfaction that comes from solving puzzles, and the excitement of challenges that lack clear outcomes. There’s no reward from simply doing the work or learning a skill, applying newly acquired knowledge or learning how to think differently; all that’s important is the mark or medal or certificate children get at the end.
According to Alfie Kohn, a leading expert in progressive education and parenting, and author of ‘Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes’, focusing on coming top and being the best actually demotivates more than it motivates. Several studies have found that it can promote anxiety amongst children, damage self-esteem and performance, and lead to disengagement.
Moreover, this impulse might be understandable if it helped children in their later life, but it doesn’t. Adult lives have few neat answers, but lots of uncertainty. Yet children get labelled as ‘talented’ or not, ‘bright’ or not, ‘academic’ or not despite developing at vastly differing rates.
Such myopic thinking is poor preparation for the complex personal and professional issues they will encounter later in life. These narrowly defined notions of talent leave behind a vast, untapped pool of diverse potential among children that could be of huge benefit to society, if it were properly supported and developed.
But given that competition is an inescapable part of life, as parents and educators, what can we do? We could start with a blank state and redefine competition for our children.
We can try to change the nature of the games we play with our children to instead emphasize cooperation and the value of failures.
Children need to be allowed to lose, ideally in a situation where they have a partner, and where cooperation and mastery are part of the scenario. Winning or losing needs to be defined as simply a measure of whether or not they were able to solve the problem.
Secondly, we can change the culture around winning and make competition more enjoyable by having children encourage other children. Urge them to recognize excellence and effort in others and to give shout-outs when they see them.
This way we will end up fostering a spirit of cooperation even in the midst of competition. When they lose, as they sometimes will, they will be encouraged in return. By taking the attention off of winning and putting it on mastery, we can nurture talent and performance in all.
It is a lot of responsibility trying to teach your child to put competition in its proper perspective in a culture that does not, but it’s the only way the individual and the team — be it the classroom, country, or the world — will grow.