Competition is engrained in our society, and kids learn it from an early age. In fact, as parents, we often help foster it. How many times has my husband said to our son, “I bet I can get dressed faster than you!” as a way to motivate him to finally get ready for preschool? How many times have I heard my son and his preschool friend debate about who was the best at something? Too many to count. And parents are notorious for being more intensely competitive at little league games than their kids.
I think everyone knows that you can’t escape competition in our society. Just look at sports, businesses, selective college degree programs, and more. What is under debate, however, is how healthy and beneficial competition is for kids.
The Case Against Competition
One of the biggest opponents to competition as a regular part of kids’ lives is Alfie Kohn, author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition. In fact, he proposes that the best amount of competition for kids would be none at all.
Kohn argues that as a result of competition in kids’ lives, feelings of self worth become dependent on external sources of evaluation. Competition produces anxiety and stress, both damaging to kids’ overall wellbeing.
Furthermore, he argues that competition does not produce the best performance in kids, contrary to popular belief. Kohn cites research done by David Johnson, a professor of social psychology at the University of Minnesota. Johnson reviewed all studies done on the subject of competition in the classroom from 1924 to 1980. Sixty-five studies found that children learn better when they work cooperatively instead of competitively, while only eight found the opposite to be true.
Research that author Peter Gray cites in his book, Free to Learn, suggests a similarly damaging effect of competition. For creative tasks in particular, research has shown that the pressure of evaluation leads to worse performance.
The negative effects of competition are fascinating and, if you’re like me, make you rethink certain parenting choices. But of course, that’s only one side of the story…
The Case for Competition
Po Bronson, co-author of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing argues that competition can be healthy for kids and enhance performance. While Alfie Kohn’s anti-competition evidence is enough to strike fear into the hearts of many parents, Bronson’s position also rings true. My son certainly gets dressed faster when he’s racing against Dad.
The key is to understand that competition produces stress and pressure, and that pressure needs to ebb and flow. It can’t be constant. Constant pressure is unhealthy. Being able to handle a stressful situation and then have a period of time recuperate, however, is a valuable life skill. After all, adults don’t get to live in a competition-free world, even if we were able to create such a world for our kids.
Bronson argues that in academic settings, things like chess competitions, math competitions, and science fairs seem to produce very favorable results in kids. Kids learn much faster and more advanced material than they would learn in the classroom. The reason he believes these sorts of activities foster “healthy competition” (which Kohn says doesn’t exist), is because they’re cooperative and competitive. The element of camaraderie buffers the stress, unlike an SAT exam, for example. With the stress buffered, competition can spur kids to higher levels of performance.
This type of healthy competition can also teach kids to work hard, even when they’re not the best—a valuable life lesson. And research by John Tauer, a psychology professor at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minnesota, suggests that the combination of cooperation and competition actually produces the highest level of performance in kids.
Taking the Emphasis Off Winning
We’ve all heard the phrase, “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose. It’s how you play the game.” We’ve heard it so many times that it sounds trite, and of course, everyone knows it’s not exactly true. If you’re a head football coach, you know that it matters whether you win or lose because your job is on the line. If you’re a salesperson, losing means you don’t earn your commission. If you’re a student, losing may mean you don’t get into the college of your choice. And if you’re a child, losing can mean feelings of self-doubt and shame.
Losing feels bad. Winning feels good. Both are realities we all experience at some point. But that doesn’t mean that those are the things we should be focusing on.
Tennis champion Eric van Dillen told Matt Richtel of The New York Times that emphasizing competition misses the point. The greatest players he knew were problem solvers. They loved the challenge of solving a difficult problem. Winning was simply a byproduct or result of having solved the problem. Winning was a measure of how effectively they’d solved it, not the goal in itself.
Another way to improve performance is by focusing on cooperation rather than competition. David Johnson (the psychology professor who reviewed all the studies on competition in the classroom) told Richtel that, “the creativity, the innovation, the quality of product all goes up as you nurture talents and performance of others.” You can infuse most competitions with a cooperative element, making them the “healthy” kind of competition that buffers stress. Instead of letting smack talk slide, encourage kids to cheer for each other. Urge them to recognize excellence and effort in other kids. This type of encouraging environment buffers the stress, allowing kids to reap the potential benefits of competition.
So maybe eliminating competition from kids’ lives is not realistic or even desirable. But instead of urging kids to “go for the gold,” we should be urging them to go for cooperation. Go for problem solving. Go for others. We should urge them to work together, encourage each other, challenge themselves with a difficult problem to solve, and recognize each other’s effort and ability. That sounds like a win to me.