Jeff Everage examines the pros and cons of competition to try to answer the question, “Is competition good or bad for our kids?” Was he victorious in finding the answer? Read on to find out.

The Competition Paradox

Olympics fever has us! Every TV I’ve passed, the picture above the Google search box, and cheers from around my neighborhood all indicate our current national obsession– for good reason. The Olympics represent some of the most virtuous qualities of being human. Olympic athletes demonstrate for us tremendous focus, dedication to their practice, becoming the best you can be, the value individual performance, and the strength of teamwork. Possibly most important, this group of athletes demonstrates an unwavering commitment to excellence.

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With this shining example of the virtues of athletic competition, it is easy to decide that competition must be good for kids. And for most of my life, I would have argued strongly for this. After all, I was a Navy SEAL where we used to say “Second place is the first loser.” If competition isn’t good for children then how did I turn out to be so achievement oriented?

The Downside of Competition

“Competitiveness… the desperate quest to beat people.”
Alfie Kohn, New Your Times April 1991, read more here.

Then I started doing research and I thank Alfie Kohn for consolidating the science and the common sense of children and competition in the New Your Times article I quoted above.  Alfie Kohn is an author, lecturer and leader in “progressive education.” He and other scientists have proven pretty conclusively that competition doesn’t belong in most of a child’s life. Here is a short synopsis of the findings:

  • Competition can harm self esteem. Most people lose in a competition. Like I said earlier, “Second in the first loser.”  And those winners aren’t off the hook either; they can only be winners if they continue to beat everyone else.
  • Children succeed in spite of competition. There are literally 65 studies over a 60 year period that show that children learn better when they work together and worse when the compete.
  • Competition may create hostility. Think about when that pitcher throws his hat on the ground after pitching a home run. Or the constant fighting in all sports. When people get behind, they get frustrated.
  • Most telling, collaborative styles of teaching are proven to be way more effective for learning than competitive styles.

Mr. Kohn does an excellent job of making a case for no more standardized test and no more grades. He especially advocates for no competition in schools, at home, or on the playground.

Do the Parents or the Kids Even Really Want It?

I talked to a friend recently about competition and kids and got a surprising response that I think will ring true to many a mom reading this. To keep her ex-husband happy, she carts her son around Southern California for hours a day during baseball season in an expensive league and spends a lot of time sitting in the stands for practice and games basically bored and working on her computer.  The other parents all seem to be fanatical about winning and the coaches are as well which turns her off even more. The whole thing leaves her with very little time to do anything else with her son. Get home, dinner, homework, and bed round out the day.

She is not even sure that her son really likes it. Her son is hard on himself when he doesn’t play well and will sulk for days after a “bad” game. It often appears to this mom that her son isn’t having much fun at all. Talking to her reminded me of my own experience of rediscovering play as an adult and the really ineffective trades that parents are making on behalf of their desires for their children to be competitive.

So there you have it. Stop competition for children. Mothers and fathers can return to living their lives. We can all hold hands, sing together, and talk about our next collaboration. Problem solved. Right?

Is There a Winning Side of Competition?

“Trying to stop boys from competing is like telling dogs not to wag their tails.” -Jeff Everage

Then I had the pleasure of picking up my sons from a nature camp. I got a big dose of reality watching my two boys play with their friends. From running, to spitting, to fishing, to throwing rocks, everything was a competition.

As natural as a dog wagging its tail, my boys have so much fun competing it just can’t be all that bad and really seems pretty natural for children.

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 What Would the Bushman Do?

Some of you may have seen my talk about the bushman of Botswana, a hunter gather culture that gives us a glimpse into how we are adapted to live. Jon Young has been traveling to Botswana for the last couple of years to learn from this culture. I decided to ask Jon about competition and children and how the Bushmen compete in their communities. We taped the interview for you to hear in its entirety.

I don’t want to spoil the interview too much because really I could write 5- 6 articles on everything that Jon talks about, and I want you to get all of it straight from him. He covers subjects from positive coaching to using competition to move children out of what he calls a “natural laziness”. He even, at the end, talks about what a Bushman does when he or she is considered the best in the community at something. Here’s a hint: They do the opposite of what most sports champions do.

Listen to the Jon Interview here.

Turns out that adult Bushman compete fiercely in games that they do not let their pre-teen children play. They literally make the children stay on the sidelines and watch them until they are done, then the children get to try it. Everyone plays these games. Some are designed for men and some for women and some for everyone.  Jon’s interpretation is that they are designed to develop skills of awareness that are used in tracking and other critical subsistence skills. Then, tellingly, Jon talks about how the same men hunt together. There was no sense of competition when they tracked an animal. Competition stayed in the games and did not spill over into the rest of the community’s life.

But What about the Competition Paradox?

Once again, I’m in awe by what we can learn from our deep roots as hunter gatherers. Competition does have its place in our community, and can be a tool for teaching (listen to Jon Young talk about that here). The paradox of competition seems to me to be that the desire to win is a strong motivator and keeps us from getting lazy in the games we play in our life, but as soon as our focus gets too much on winning, we lose the “zone”, have a bad time, get angry, forget to have fun, and all sorts of other detrimental behavior. What makes competition work is what makes competition not work in so many parts of modern life.

No Clear-Cut Conclusion for This One…

If you know my style of writing, you know I like to wrap a concept up in a neat package of observations and trades. I used to think that competition was super important for child development. Then I heard Alfie Kohn talk and agreed that competition does not belong in a child’s life at all, and now after talking to Jon Young, I’m thinking that there is a middle ground somewhere.

The Bushmen use modeling to its fullest by making the children watch the adults play. Maybe we parents should take on modeling when and how to play a lot more than we are doing. This sounds way better than watching videos on your phone from the stands of soccer practice.

Our culture trades learning cooperation and childhood unstructured fun for lots of structured sports at very early ages combined with tons of homework and competitive pressure at home and school. To top it off, the parents aren’t having any fun either,  carting their children around and sitting in the bleachers. Over all, the parenting trade that competition presents does not appear to be a great one to make and seems to be happening way too early in a child’s life.

Bottom line, a more nurturing and less competitive environment with more adult models of play would promote cooperation, reduce stress, and promote something we all need more of– having fun…

by Jeff Everage

See related posts:

Olympic Encouragement Every Day
What Is Play for Adults? Why It’s Important for Kids
Childhood Obesity and Your Family’s Healthy?

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