Sunday, April 19, 2009

Competition: From the Kids' Views

I have one child who's competitive and goal driven and two who focus on the doing rather than the getting there. Do I even need to say how much friction occurs when all three try to play a game?

I'm reminded of a vivid memory of my childhood. My family often played games together, but one of the games that we rarely played was Monopoly. We all thought it was a great game and enjoyed it when any particular game was long and involved. So why didn't we play very often? The simple reason is that my middle sister and I liked to play for the enjoyment of being together, and my mom and my older sister played to win (I almost wrote that they were cutthroat, but that would be judgmental, wouldn't it? hehe). My oldest sis would revel in bankrupting someone and booting them out of the game on her way to victory, while I would cry and beg her to show mercy. And I would make her crazy when I would lend money to my middle sis under the table so that we could all keep playing, while my mom would cry foul and demand that she pay up out of her own account, bankruptcy or no.

At the time, I could never understand how they could be so heartless, and they could never understand how we could be so
spineless. I see now that it was more a matter of who we were and what made us tick. To this day, my oldest sister has pictures on her walls of goals she's striving to reach, and she'll drive all night to reach a destination. And my middle sis has ongoing projects lying around to be tackled when the mood strikes, and she'll plan trips with side-stops along the way.

So which one of us was "right"? Obviously I was! Not really, of course. Either type of personality has its strong points, and - like in many things - most of us fall somewhere between the extremes. 

From G's perspective, competition "makes things interesting." Without the geography bee to work toward, he never would have learned the information he's learned and to the depth that he knows it - by his own admission. To him, a competition adds spice and intrigue. It's a challenge, a dare, a test of skills. It's adrenaline, fast-pumping action, and thinking fast on your feet.

S, however, much prefers contests to competitions. She enjoys spending time on a project with an eye to entering it into a contest, rather than a head-to-head competition. She'd rather take time and effort to create something with thought, whether it will be judged against others' work or just enjoyed by herself. To her, competition can be intimidating, nerve wracking, and stressful. 

Most of us don't want our kids to be subjected to the intense competitive environment prevalent in some other countries. The suicide rate in Japan - with its reputation as the "suicide capital of the world" - is way high, over 30,000 in 2007, as is random stabbings. Some say this is because of the highly competitive society (although clearly reasons behind suicide are multifaceted).

But we also don't want our kids to have no drive and no direction. 

I'm of the generation when trophies meant something. If you had a shelf full of trophies, you had actually earned them (I didn't have a one). While I secretly envied my friends with trophies, I also knew I didn't have the desire to go out and win one. 

These days any kid whose parents paid for a camp, a class, or membership to a team wins (gets) a trophy. And because just about every kid has a shelf full of trophies these days, the trophies that are actually awards are HUGE! I mean, good grief, G has over forty - FORTY - trophies or medals, and only a few of them were actual awards. That doesn't mean that he's some remarkable prodigy by any stretch of the imagination. What it actually means is that we ponied up the money to have him take a camp or participate in a tournament.

What's that saying, "When everybody's a winner, nobody's a winner"? Something like that?

It might seem like I'm making a strong case for competition. I'm not. What I'm saying instead is that competition has its place, and teamwork has its place, and there's a place for every person to shine. It doesn't have to be competition, but sometimes that's the best option.

Every person, every child has a gift and a talent. But competition is something that, like everything else in a child's life, must be decided in the best interest of the child. 


  1. Human being are innately competitive. It's a sort of primal drive. I do see why montessori (at AMS) teaches collaboration before competition though. We watched a PBS show at Laura's place today (I think you know her) and it was about what makes human human. A's teacher says kids are inspired by what other kids are doing in his montessori class, and want to learn cool stuff older kids are doing, as well. That's a key reason they have older kids mixed in. It's inspiration, not a desire to be better...

  2. I get what you're saying, but I'm not sure I agree about humans being innately competitive. Maybe so, but I still believe that it's on a continuum. (I haven't done any research to back up my observations.) Some of are so competitive that it takes over our lives, and others of us are so non-competitive that we're unable to function in a competitive environment. Neither extreme is good.

  3. A very fair and balanced view, I would say. The world absolutely needs both kinds. Although I was a bit distracted by all the blood rushing vicariously to my head when I saw the photo of S reading upside down. :-)

  4. One q: at what age do you think you can figure out what kind of child/ren one has? For a non-homeschooling family it makes a world of difference in schooling choices! Lord help me if one of my twins is competitive and one is not. I will go totally gray.

  5. I have two words for you, Raji, that have changed my life:
    Hair color.

    I could tell practically from birth what type of kids mine were. For us, it was pretty obvious when they started playing games together, especially board games. If yours aren't at each others throats when they play together, then I'd guess they're pretty compatible. If one or both were competitive, you'd certainly hear about it. :) Probably repeatedly and at loud volumes.

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