Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Competition: The Hope for the Future or the Scourge of a Generation?

Is competition good or bad?

Ask the coach of a Big 12 football team or an older-generation professor from a high-powered university, and you'd probably get a resounding "Good, obviously!" or maybe even "Essential!"

Ask a Waldorf parent or a Montessori teacher, and the answer might be "Definitely bad." or even "Detrimental to mental health."

Obviously, it depends on who you ask, but it also depends--most importantly--on the kid. As in many things, what's perfect for one kid may be disastrous for another.

One kid might need an external goal to achieve anything worthwhile and may thrive on the excitement of head-to-head mental combat. That kid may need the thrill of the game, the impending deadline, the worthy opponent. That person may say there's no point learning anything unless there's a challenge at the end of the road. After all, that path that meanders through the woods in a loop, simply there to let you view the sights and put you back where you started, holds no interest. What's the point of that? To that kid, the destination is the prize, not the journey.

Another kid sees life as a process, not a series of goals. This child seeks out those meandering trails, wandering with wonder along the loop, pleased to see the sights before arriving back to the safety and comfort of home. Along the way, this child finds knowledge because it's there to be taken, not because of a challenge. If this kid knew that at the end of the trail lay a worthy opponent, ready to duke it out mentally, he would never set foot on the path. He would be intimidated, or he would be confused as to the purpose of the competition, or he might just hate to lose. For this kid, the journey is the prize, not the destination.

What are the dangers if you force the goal-oriented kid into a learning environment that focuses on "everybody is equal"?  Well, the most obvious, of course, is boredom. Apathy. Loss of the love of learning. If everyone gets a trophy at the end, what's the point of doing my best? If my efforts aren't recognized, why try? What's the goal? Here's a big one: loss of a sense of identity. How can I show the world who I am, if I'm seen to be just like everyone else?

What are the pitfalls if you force the process kid into a learning environment that focuses on competition? Clearly, a loss of self-confidence if the child is forced into a competition and fails. More than one child has given up something he loves because he lost in a test of ability, even if that test didn't accurately measure that ability. At the extreme, a child can refuse to learn. ("What's the point? I'll lose.") For a certain personality, competition--especially in a non-nurturing environment--can crush a child's spirit. What if the child has gifts in some area (say, a creative area, like art or music) but is forced to compete in purely academic competitions? The results can be far-reaching, as in killing even the creativity and thus the gifts.

So what's the answer? To compete or not to compete? Once again, it all comes down to knowing our kids--knowing their personalities, their strengths, their weaknesses, those areas that need to be developed, those areas that are strong and need to be expressed--and respecting them as people, and finding the right fit for them. It's a monumental task. 

And what if you have kids with different personalities? How do you teach the goal-oriented kid that "winning isn't everything" and how do you show the process kid that "victory is sweet"? Should you?

That's a topic for tomorrow. Check back, and I'll tell you all about what my kids--both competitive and non-competitive--have to say about competition.


  1. Oh, what a timely post! We are having this debate at home almost daily!

  2. My husband is of the view, that all young children must be allowed to seek knowledge for the sake of it, rather than be movivated by competition...Curious what you think of that, Camille. He says that for young children, competition is unnecessary as motivation - it distracts from finding one's passion and being passionate about learning for its own sake. --Deepa

  3. [This is from my husband, clarifying my position here on what he believes on this subject].

    > Just a clarification....
    > Competition by itself is not detrimental at all.
    > To me, being competitive is about
    > self-improvement.
    > Being competitive is not about being better than
    > another person. It is becoming better yourself.
    > To be the best, you do not need to be good.

    (He meant, others could be really bad, so being the best does not imply you're good at something, you're merely better than your competitors)

    > Being better says that you have improved.
    > Competition by itself is very very good. Only good. As
    > long as it is applied in the right way.
    > When not applied correctly, it teaches kids to be
    > selfish, disrespectful towards others and not be good team
    > players. These are the kind of kids that will be grow up to
    > be "successful" and more likely to engage in
    > unethical activities.
    > Ram

  4. Just some background, Ram is a very accomplished sportsman and plays hard and believes sports are a key way to building character (team sports). He played volleyball for his state and seems to excel in every sport he gets into. He's also super successful academically, and has a lot of humility about all this. I see a lot of similarity between you and my husband, Camille. He has deep self-knowledge, and has no interest in seeking status, and is a VERY happy person. He still is passionate about improving as a sportsman, and solving hard puzzles etc, for the fun of it (without recognition/competition awaiting at the end).

    I am still struggling to understand exactly what makes me happy, myself!

  5. I think Ram's got it right, although I'm not so sure I'd go so far as to say "only good." What I always come back to is the question, "Is it right for THIS kid?" For some, even a perfectly executed competition (if there is such a thing) would not be good, for the simple fact that there's a winner and a loser. That's the nature of competitions, and for some that winner/loser scenario doesn't work, even if that kid is the winner.

  6. What about the label acquired at the end? My experience as a competitive kid (or a kid raised to be competitive) is that I was thrown into competing too early, because of which I aquired the (Indian equivalent of) label "Gifted/Talented" and that made me afraid to try really hard things, for fear of losing the label.

  7. I think flexibility is so important. Something I thought about when reading your post is how parents can become so attached to the "one right way to live." Even progressive parents. It really is so important for us to consider that people, including our children, are individuals.