Do Children Do Better or Worse with Competition?
I consider myself anti-competitive. I do not like competition, and I believe that it is particularly unhelpful for helping children achieve their best. I know this is going to lead to eye-rolling from many parents, but hear me out.
I wasn’t always like this. I grew up loving competition. Heck, I was the age-swimming champion in my final year of high school.
But as I’ve grown older I’ve mellowed a little. My research into how competition affects self-esteem, wellbeing, and achievement, has changed my view of competition.
Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing
Most parents want to think of ourselves as good sports. We want our children to be good sports too. We repeat, over and over, that in competition, “it doesn’t matter if you win or lose. It’s how you play the game.”
But when they lose we point out our children’s need for improvement, their deficits, and their mistakes. We blame the coach, the weather, the other team, or the referee. Sometimes we even get mad. There are regular stories in the news about parents behaving badly on the sidelines of children’s sport.
And when they win, let’s face it… most of us go nuts! We’re thrilled. We glory in their triumph. We praise their ability, tell them they’re champions, give them treats and other awards, and we say things like “Winners are grinners!”
Is competition bad for self-esteem?
Which brings me to my chief concern with competition. I think it’s bad for self-esteem. Even when you’re winning.
Here’s what I mean. Most children feel lousy when they lose. No one wants to be a loser. That IS bad for self-esteem. Interestingly, some children respond to losing with a “mastery” mindset. They just want to improve and get better. But competition reduces the likelihood of that happening. The focus is too much on performance and not enough on process and development.
But winning impacts self-esteem too. Self-esteem stays high whenever winning is occurring. But when children experience subsequent setbacks following their winning ways, defeats can crush confidence and leave some children questioning their identity, competence, and character. Winning pushes some kids into a “fixed” mindset, and the outcomes can, in some cases, be dire.
Could competition be teaching the wrong things?
Winning is an exclusive event. Only one student can be dux. Only one team can win the premiership. Only one child can reign supreme in the spelling bee.
When unsuccessful children place their feelings of worth in their performance and then fail, they can feel crushed. Their sense of identity may be questioned. In some tragic cases, they suffer a crisis that can have catastrophic consequences. The cruelty of competition is far too often glossed over, but is a real contributor to an unwillingness to try in too many children.
Winners more likely to cheat?
In a series of recent studies, researchers found that when participants succeeded against their peers in a competition, they became more likely to cheat or steal in a subsequent (unrelated) task when compared with losers. Furthermore, the subsequent unethical behaviour effect seemed only to occur after a person won against someone else. When people in a different task were “successful” but were not in competition, they did not become more unethical in their subsequent behaviour.
The researchers also discovered that winners felt a sense of entitlement after besting their opponents in the initial competition. They argued that this explains why the winners were more likely to cheat in the second contest.
In another study, children with pushy parents were more likely to take performance enhancing substances to maintain their winning ways.
A winning mindset is an unhealthy mindset
There are a number of reasons that competition may promote an unhealthy mindset in children and adults.
- The need to win can create a willingness to do “whatever it takes”, whether on the sporting field, in the classroom, in politics or in the boardroom. Ethically bankrupt behaviour is found almost wherever there is competition.
- A winning mindset can limit curiosity, creativity, and exploration. “If I can’t win, why bother trying?”
- A winning mindset can alienate positive relationships. “That girl over there is very competitive” may be meant in a complimentary way, but we generally do not encourage friendships with competitive people.
- A winning mindset undercuts an openness to collaborate with others. If my child sees everyone as a competitor, he is unlikely to work with them, share ideas, build them up, and promote the idea of team.
- A winning mindset discourages risk-taking. Think of a game of tennis where the stakes are high. Players focus on high-percentage plays where risk is limited, and attempt to wear one another down. When stakes are low, risks are fun and exciting. Not so when competition demands zero errors.
What’s the alternative?
The famous “Robbers Cave” experiments pitted two groups of boys against each other on a camp. The intense and unexpected rivalry led to cabins being ransacked, flags being burnt, and fights breaking out. The competition was unhealthy in every way.
As the experiment was finalised, the groups were brought together to collaborate on activities, like pulling a tractor/truck up a hill with a rope. The competition was forgotten. Collaboration and working together united the boys and helped them achieve more than any of their previous competitions.
Gold stars and trophies for everyone?
The idea that everyone can win is laughed at in our society. Competition is argued to be natural. And it is true that humans have existed in competitive ways for centuries (or even millennia). We have been trained to believe that success is found in victory; in beating someone else. But superior performance does not require competitiveness. We seem equally pre-disposed to cooperate, to collaborate, and to co-exist. In fact, success often (or usually) requires the absence of competition. The simplest way to understand this is to consider the following: will a child achieve excellence in trying to do well, or in trying to beat others?
Yes, sports and other competitive pursuits can be fun. However, someone always loses. By changing opponents into partners and pursuing cooperative activities with others, our children are able to play, have fun, and enjoy relationships without the psychologically destructive elements of competition – and without the risk of stealing, cheating, lying, and other morally bereft behaviours interfering.
Do you think competition is healthy or unhealthy for your kids?