Many parents share that they are unsure about whether competition is good for kids. While it’s fulfilling to let one’s son or daughter win as it helps to nurture confidence and a healthy self-image in them, child psychologists advise that always throwing a game in the name of a child’s contentment might eventually foster a false self-image, unsportsmanlike practices and stubbornness.
That said, there are many little known advantages and disadvantages of competition in education and play. While competition in schools develop self-discipline and drive in students, competition in education when purposed and packaged inappropriately can fail to encourage learning, and instead foster a solely results-driven mindset and a child who does not value the bigger picture.
Although safety should be the priority of competition among children, its next priority is the astute observation of how kids grow from and react to competition. Without supervision, the negative social habits that can arise within a child include fear, depression and tantrums stemming from not winning, as well as gloating and a lack of empathy for one’s rivals after winning. Psychologists like Kenneth Barish and Michelle Cleere note that while children have little understanding of the different aspects of competition, they start grasping what ‘win’ and ‘lose’ are from a tender age.
In childhood competition, the famous words of Jean Piaget ring ever true,
Play is the answer to how anything new comes about.
Healthy competition when guided, however, can endow students with a bounty of benefits:
- Children get to learn about themselves
It was the spirit of competition that first revealed to us our respective strengths and weaknesses. Even in losing do we, by coping with the negative emotional feedback of a loss, develop self-esteem, and more importantly, address our fears and confront our insecurities by rising to challenges, which is also vouched for by Vicki Zakrzewski, Education Director of the Greater Good Science Center of the University of California, Berkeley. At a young age, many preschoolers already discover what their motivations are, and learn to harness their personal driving forces in order to propel themselves past hurdles. Everyone has a different way of staying composed and effective under pressure, and children have the potential to come to these realisations when facing academic competition. As Sigmund Freud notably said,
Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength.
Children also learn that doing well in competition feels good, and Alfie Kohn author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition notes that this encourages kids to face up to challenges even more often to enjoy these positive feelings.
- Parents can identify and guide their growing children’s personalities
Your child might or might not be as competitive as their peers, because children display a wide spectrum of competitiveness. Through observing your children and speaking with their teachers, you get to understand the scenarios that they face and how they deal with it. Psychologist Erik Erikson notes,
You see a child play, and it is so close to seeing an artist paint, for in play a child says things without uttering a word. You can see how he solves his problems. You can also see what’s wrong.
If a child is afraid, upset, unsportsmanlike or unmotivated, this is their parents’ opportunity to step in and counsel them toward the right mentality toward facing challenges. In a supportive environment, losing can encourage learning instead of bringing damage to a child’s self-esteem, highlights British Mensa, which also warns against teaching a child to compete in order to win the love and acceptance of his or her own family.
- Children learn a lot about relationships
As mentioned, the emotions that occur when striving against adversity or coping with a loss, are tough for a young person to stomach, but the worst thing a parent can do is to tweak the game rather than address a child’s attitude. Children, under the guidance of adults, stand to learn a lot about sportsmanship and graciousness from competition. Because competition produces losers and winners, the communication and social skills that competition endows children are boundless. Competition leads to learning cooperation too, as Franklin D. Roosevelt once noted. Children take these lessons about being a good loser or winner home with them, which replace sibling rivalry with love and empathy. Furthermore, moments of consolation, victory celebrations and encouragement between parent and child cement bonds that last a lifetime.
- Children learn values that are best learned through competition
Friendly competition in school has been proven to nurture inquisitiveness in children. They learn what drives them and how to look within to find a solution, rather than blame others. This occurs especially in team sports and group work, which schools worldwide frequently apply to teach effective communication and cooperation. Lawmakers like Sir Digby Jones have reiterated how childhood competition prepares kids for the global economy. Child psychologists also note that children have the aptitude from a very young age to learn resilience and persistence. Best of all, every assignment, game, test and sport endows kids with unique life skills, comments Hilary Levey Friedman, author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.
- Children learn to cope with stress
A stressed child can break a parent’s heart, but in actuality, stress is our body’s physiological reaction to helping us improve ourselves. More importantly, a winning attitude can be good or bad for a child, depending on how it is induced by adults, which is emphasised by John Tauer, a Professor of Psychology at the University of St Thomas, Minnesota. Stress occurs frequently in the adult lives of most urban dwellers, so the friendly playing fields that occur during a child’s education are invaluable in preparing them for the harsh realities that they will have to confront in their teenage years and beyond.
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Also published on Medium.