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Originally published Friday, October 12, 2012 at 10:01 PM

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The competing views on competitiveness in children

Is it better to teach children tough life lessons, like the thrill of victory is sweeter if you have known the agony of defeat? Or is it better simply to let a child win?

The New York Times

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Just before bedtime on a recent night, two toddlers marched reluctantly to the bathroom to brush their teeth. And on the way, my 4-year-old son told his little sister: "I'm going to win. I'm going to win!"

At toothbrushing.

I have one of those, a child with an apparent competitive streak. When Milo and I play baseball, he tells me, "I'll be the Yankees and you can be a team that they beat."

A recent article in The New York Times detailed President Barack Obama's own deep-seated desire to win. At a farewell gathering with a group of interns, the competitor-in-chief gave them some life advice: "When you all have kids, it's important to let them win," he said. Then he added, with a smile, "Until they're a year old" — at which point you can start winning again.

Is he right, even in jest? Is it better to teach children tough life lessons, like the thrill of victory is sweeter if you have known the agony of defeat? Or is it better simply to let a child win, and allow victory to be part of the fun? Is there a strategy that promotes happiness and performance, even if you're only playing Candyland?

"The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that competition is destructive, particularly, but not exclusively, for children," said Alfie Kohn, an author and speaker whose views on the negative aspects of competition are widely followed in the field of parenting. "It's a toxic way to raise children."

He added, "The absence of competition seems to be a prerequisite for excellence in most endeavors, contrary to received wisdom."

Kohn is, not surprisingly, a lightning rod. It's hard to reconcile his views with the realities of modern life, from presidential races to Olympic ones, where there are only three medal winners, and some stand taller than others. It would seem to be a parent's job to prepare children for the reality of scarce resources and rewards.

Many scholars agree that competition is necessary, ingrained and essential. Studies have shown that under certain conditions, competition can improve performance and happiness. People are better off when they are trying to win (rather than trying not to lose), and when they are confident. It also helps if the stakes are very low and the motivation is not just to win, but to achieve mastery.

But I was surprised by the extent to which many researchers agree with aspects of Kohn's view that rough-and-tumble competition, which I have always taken for granted as a fact of modern life, can promote anxiety, damage self-esteem and performance, and lead to disengagement.

An analysis to be published in an upcoming issue of the Psychological Bulletin, a journal of the American Psychological Association, looks at hundreds of research papers on the subject of competition and performance and finds no clear connection between the two. Sometimes, it seems, competition enhances performance, but equally often it does not.

So how to resolve these competing views on competition? I set out for an answer, with the added motivation of finding some advice on how to handle my I-will-crush-you-at-toothbrushing son.

The good news is that there is a real chance for parents to start with a blank slate when it comes to defining competition for children, said David Shields, an assistant professor of educational psychology at St. Louis Community College and the founder of TrueCompetition.org, which focuses on "reclaiming competition for excellence, ethics and enjoyment."

"Kids have a shallow understanding of competition," Shields said. "They know the word 'win' is used out there."

In other words, my son apparently is not thinking deeply about what he is saying when he tells me he wants to beat me. So Shields's first piece of advice for me was: "Let me him work through his fantasy. There's no problem with that."

What's the parenting lesson? Try to change the nature of the games you play with your children, Shields and others said, to emphasize cooperation. I gave it a shot.

Milo and I were standing in the living room when I proposed my plan: Let's play catch and try to count how many times we can toss the ball back and forth.

"Yeah," Milo said, excitedly. He paused. "I'll catch more than you."

I couldn't help but laugh. I'm not worried he's going to become one of those jerks, the guys who throw elbows during pickup basketball games and suck the air out of every conversation because they approach everything as a power struggle.

I also hear plenty of Milo's friends, especially the firstborns, talk about winning, with the sense that it's good but without any real understanding of what it means or why.

I've already done my part to promote the value of competition, almost completely unconsciously. I'll talk about whether the San Francisco Giants just won their game. He knows that someone is going to be elected president and someone else is not. He hears me talk about my tennis matches, and not just whether I've played well.

But even researchers who aren't big fans of battle metaphors that highlight the zero-sum nature of some forms of competition acknowledge that competition is an inescapable part of life.

John Tauer is a psychology professor at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minn., where he studies competition and coaches the men's basketball team. "When I hear solutions that say let's eliminate competition," Tauer said, "that's not realistic."

"Not everybody gets to be a doctor," he added, by way of example. "You don't get away from competition unless you go to a system where everybody gets to do what they want whenever they want."

In a series of studies over a five-year period, he looked at how children ages 9 to 14 performed shooting free throws in three situations: when one player was pitted against another (direct competition); when two players worked together to get the highest combined score (cooperation); and when two players joined forces to try to score more than another pair (cooperation combined with competition).

The combination of cooperation and competition resulted in greater satisfaction and often in higher scores as well. "It's as consistent of a finding as we've had," Tauer said. "Kids prefer the combination of competition and cooperation. It's a significant increase in enjoyment."

But what about when a child is playing on his own, or with his sister, or with a few others?

Tauer had some concrete advice: Even more basic than the need to win, he told me, is the need to feel good and to have an accurate worldview. So if I let Milo win all the time, he might initially feel good, but at some point he's going to develop a sense that something is not right. He needs to be allowed to lose, ideally in a situation where he has a partner, and where cooperation and mastery are part of the scenario.

"One of the biggest culprits in psychology is wanting kids to feel good all the time," Tauer said. "Trying to avoid competition is making it bigger than it needs to be."

Tauer was speaking not just as a researcher and coach, but as a parent of two boys, ages 7 and 10, with very different competitive temperaments. One isn't much into competition, he said, and the other just doesn't work as hard unless something is on the line. As a child, Tauer fell somewhere in between, he said, interested in mastering skills but still upset if his team lost.

Next, I sought the advice of a tennis champion, Erik van Dillen, who as a teenager in the late 1960s was the best player in the country. He went on to win the Davis Cup in 1972, as Stan Smith's doubles partner, and beat a young John McEnroe at Wimbledon. He is also a father of five and someone who thinks a lot about parenting, as I've come to know the last few years as his friend and occasional tennis partner.

The emphasis on competition, he told me, somewhat misses the point — even at the level of champions. The greatest players he has known and played against, he said, are problem solvers. When they play against other greats, they relish the challenge of solving a difficult problem. Winning or losing is simply a measure of whether or not they have solved the problem.

He has watched them carry those same problem-solving skills into the rest of their lives, he said, and he hasn't noticed any diminished sense of self-esteem when they lose or any heightened sense of self when they win.

In that spirit, van Dillen gave his children the poem "If" by Rudyard Kipling, which urges the maturing soul to regard both triumph and disaster as "impostors."

To hear him and Tauer tell it, the problem might be the very questions I started out with: How often should I let Milo win? How often should I allow him to lose?

Maybe the more relevant question is, what does it mean to win or lose? The answer: On most days, a lot less than the words have come to imply on TV. So maybe what I ought to be doing is taking the weight out of those words and diminishing their importance while accepting them as a fact of life.

David Johnson, a professor emeritus of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, who has done pioneering work on the conditions that make competition enjoyable and enhance performance, suggested one way to change the culture around winning: Have Milo encourage other children. Urge him to recognize excellence and effort in others and to give shout-outs when he sees them.

That way, Johnson said, he'll be fostering a spirit of cooperation even in the midst of competition. And when he loses, as he invariably will, he will receive encouragement in return. By taking the emphasis off winning and putting it on mastery, Johnson said, the individual and the team — classroom, country, world — will grow in the process.

"The creativity, the innovation, the quality of product all goes up as you nurture talents and performance of others," he said.

This was heady stuff for a parent trying to teach a child to put competition in its proper perspective, especially in a culture that often does not.

"It's a lot of responsibility," he agreed, laughing.

I tried it out. The next time Milo and I played ball, this time with two of his friends, I encouraged him to praise their efforts and skills. His first time up, Milo whacked one. Then his buddy did, too.

"Good one," Milo yelled.

It caught on. A few days later, we were going to play ball again, this time with his little sister. I reminded Milo to encourage her for her effort and her good work.

"I know," he said, as we unpacked the bat.

His sister shouted: "I'm going first!"

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