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The Dark Side of Competition

The Dark Side of Competition
By Wendy Priesnitz

We are told that competition is good for us, that it builds character and pushes us to achieve excellence. We are also told that kids need to learn to compete in order to survive and thrive as adults. What if, in fact, the opposite is true?

So you decide to sit down with your family for a pleasant evening of fun and companionship playing Scrabble. An hour or so later, you’re not speaking to each other and you wonder where the initial social impulse went! Or dad and son sit down to a game of Monopoly, which dad easily wins; his son is crestfallen and slinks away to bed, leaving dad sad too, and wondering if he should have slacked off and let his son win.

Or your child enters a science fair at school. The project takes up an inordinate amount of her and your time. The pressure is huge to win, place, or show. You feel the pressure too and end up “helping,” which makes it more your project than hers. If the project wins the contest, she will be rewarded, but – at least in the case of a few kids I’ve spoken with who were honest enough to admit it – it will be a hollow victory.

School is predominately about competition: for the teacher’s attention, for the best test scores and grades, for a spot on the football team and the most goals, to hang out with the in-group. ‘Twas ever so and, by my observation, it’s getting worse. Not until the post-grad years of university are students able to focus on excellence in their own fields of study, for their own merits, rather than on competitive rankings.

Some researchers have found that competition can have “positive results” when used as a motivational technique in the classroom – meaning that when students compete with each other to get better test scores, overall scores increase. However, getting a good mark on a test doesn’t necessarily mean the material has been learned; it can also mean that the test taker is good at taking tests, or at least memorizes well.

 

Or it can be a result of “cheating” (also known, in other contexts, as collaborating). Given the pressure of standardized testing, which ranks and grades not only students but teachers and schools, it’s not surprising that a lot of gaming the system goes on in schools.

On the flip side, research going back to the early 1970s has found that, in group educational settings, co-operation and collaboration are more effective tools for learning than competition; competition creates anxiety and can dampen motivation.

Beyond encouraging cheating – in school or elsewhere (think doping in competitive sport) – competition is problematic in other ways. Researchers like prolific author and clinical psychologist John F. Schumaker have written about the body of research demonstrating that children’s feelings of self-worth can become dependent on external sources of evaluation as a result of comparison and competition – and on how many people they have beaten.

Parenting author Alfie Kohn has also written about competition and its perils for children. In his 1986 book No Contest, he cites hundreds of studies to back up his argument that our struggle to defeat each other — at work, at school, at play, and at home — turns all of us into losers.

In a 1991 article in the New York Times, Kohn points out: “The very word ‘competitiveness’ . . . suggests a fundamental confusion between excellence, on the one hand, and the desperate quest to beat people, on the other. These two concepts are not only distinct in theory but often antithetical in practice.”

He elaborates on this in his 2014 book The Myth Of The Spoiled Child: Coddled Kids, Helicopter Parents, and Other Phony Crises: “When we set children against one another in contests – from spelling bees to awards assemblies to science ‘fairs’ (that are really contests), from dodge ball to honor rolls to prizes for the best painting or the most books read – we teach them to confuse excellence with winning, as if the only way to do something well is to outdo others.”

And setting kids against one another is, I think, a large part of the problem. Kids, left to their own devices, may well race to see who can get somewhere faster; then they’ll dash off somewhere else with no gloating or sulking because of the results. Or, when they’re older, they might keep repeating a task over and over in order to improve their performance – whether it’s running or playing the piano – an activity that could be called competing with oneself. And that can be character- and skill-building. But I am convinced that the winner-take-all competitions that kids neither originate nor control will always be destructive.

In spite of all the negatives, parents often allow their own competitive anxiety to influence their children. We all know parents who push their children hard to succeed academically in aid of securing a spot in university and ultimately a well-paying job. (Not that those aren't valid goals...for the child.) I’ve also seen that parental goal at work when families are simply playing games together, although the adults are often horrified when their behavior is pointed out.

Some parents also have a huge ego involvement in their kids’ progress, according to psychology professor and author Wendy Grolnick. While some children and young people turn off under such pressure, others end up with anxiety-triggered illnesses. Grolnick’s message to competitive parents is to nurture their children’s autonomy and confidence in their own abilities, rather than pushing them to compete.

Co-operative games inventor Jim Deacove and his family have been manufacturing the Family Pastimes line of cooperative games in Canada since 1972. Deacove’s games allow people of different ages and abilities to play side by side and not worry about being wiped out on an unfair playing field. He uses Musical Chairs as an example of how a simple, common party game that’s supposed to be about having fun and socializing kids really fosters aggression and elimination. Deacove is quick to assert that his games don’t protect children from failure. “Our games are designed to offer realistic challenges,” he says.

But the cultural habit of competing and confronting adversaries runs deep. On the other hand, when kids learn and play cooperatively, they are confronting obstacles while developing social interaction and problem-solving skills, as well as communication and sharing ability, trust, empathy, and collaboration – whether the game’s objective is reached or not.

Still, many parents and teachers worry that kids need to learn about competition, since the working world is competitive. I, on the other hand, argue that what employers want these days is not competitors but people who can work collaboratively. As I wrote in this magazine in 2010, the industrial model of work design is becoming outmoded, and it is taking the industrial model of education along with it. Instead, employers are increasingly looking for workers who are flexible and adaptable, who are creative and entrepreneurial thinkers and researchers. They want people who can collaborate and network, and who are good at conflict resolution, problem solving, and negotiating. They aren’t looking for competitive loners with fragile self-esteem who are programmed to win at any cost and crumple if they don’t.

You could say that cooperation beats competition hands down! But it's a complex topic that is deeply embedded in our culture. And it's one that all parents, unschoolers and others alike, would be wise to think about.

Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine's editor. She is also the author of twelve books, has been a journalist for forty years and a mother for forty-three years. She has come to the conclusion in the past few years that there isn't much, if anything, that is fully within parental control. And that's not such a bad thing after all.

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