Is Competition Good For Our Kids?

debating kids and competition

Winners train, losers complain…  

Off the field, we’re friends; on the field, we’re warriors...

Encouraging mantras for competition. Encouraging because competition is a good thing.  And it’s good for our kids.  

Or is it?

There are, (it’s no surprise), competing views…

Competition is, simply good:  It’s natural (as did our biological ancestors, we still compete for survival in some cases, say, for example, survival of a business); it’s what our country was founded upon; Competition can promote creativity, provide a child with a goal; it can teach children how to lose and lose graciously; it’s fun; it can be rewarding; it can help kids stand out as individuals...

Related: Top 10 Signs You're Too Wrapped Up in Your Child's Sport 

Yet it may not be so simple:

A 2010 study of competitiveness among adolescents, by Hibbard and Buhrmester, concluded that competition can impact children’s psychological well-being and social functioning in either a positive or a negative way, depending on the type of competition and upon a child’s gender.

Competing to win (i.e. to dominate and outperform others) was found to be detrimental to girls’ social relationships -- leading to fewer and less-close friendships -- and was linked to higher levels of depression (this was much less the case for boys) and to higher levels of loneliness.

Competing to excel (i.e. to perform well and surpass personal goals) was found to contribute to the well-being of both genders.  It was linked to higher self-esteem and less depression for both genders, but was largely unrelated to social functioning.

Related: Top 10 Benefits of Sports for Kids

Competition is harmful: Mr. Alfie Kohn, author of 12 books about human behavior, including No Contest: The Case Against Competition, claims: The “very phrase ‘healthy competition’ is actually a contradiction in terms... Some things are inherently destructive. Competition, which simply means that one person can succeed only if others fail, is one of those things.”

Kohn claims competition:

  • undermines self-esteem, as kids can become “dependent on external sources of evaluation, as a result of competition: Your value is defined by what you've done.”

  • interferes with achievement by often causing kids to become anxious, which interferes with their concentration; by not allowing kids to share their talents and resources (unlike cooperation), such that kids can't learn from one another; by causing kids to try to be the best, thus distracting them from what they're supposed to be learning

  • makes people less interested in the task itself

  • hurts relationships, by fostering aggression, envy, etc.

Mr. Kohn has deemed competition to be a “recipe for hostility” with each child coming to regard others as obstacles to his or her own success.

Everything isn’t a competition and as such, with regard to the question, 'Is competition good for our kids?' -- there is no best answer.  

Related: Parenting In The Age of Trophy Kids

Competition’s effect upon our children can depend upon many things, among them:  the type of competition, the type of child (gender? How does your child react to competition: does he see it as a source of stress or as a challenge?) and upon your own approach, as a parent. For example, how much emphasis do you place on winning, doing your best, or just having fun?

Winners train, losers complain… hangs at the end of one of the lap lanes at our pool.  Whether or not I choose to race my son and daughter – to invite the element of competition into our swim and apparently into their development – is too big a consideration to make in between crawl strokes and side breaths, I decide, today.

Instead, I turn my focus, as we all can, to the more-universal mantras that also hang solidly, above the ever-fluid water:

Hard Work: You can’t get much done in life if you only work on the days when you feel good… Commitment:  You’re either in or you’re out, there is no such thing as life in between… Work Hard:  Good Things Will Happen…to which I nod, knowing that I will work hard, with my kids, to figure out what feels right and what feels good when it comes to approaching the competition they face inherently in their everyday lives and to inviting – or not – the competition that is optional…

Race you?” I’ve changed my mind as I turn to the kids and ask. Upon “Go!” we dive into the water and start competing in full force, for better or for worse.

What do you think?

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Anna Katzman is a Clinical Nurse Specialist in psychiatry, certified in child and adolescent mental health. She is a regular contributor to GalTime. You can visit her blog for additional information.

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