Does winning matter?
Is competition a useful motivator for children, or do parents emphasise it too much, asks this school counselor.
It is that time of year now. Prize-giving.

Some children will be walking onto stages to receive prizes, and others won’t. Teachers are very busy in the days leading up to this event, but the work of the school counsellor starts afterwards, mopping up the tears and helping some children deal with perceived failure or unfairness. Children need to learn about competition because they are sure to encounter it from very early on in their lives.

This is a tricky one for parents. How do you find the balance between encouraging effort without applying competition-driven pressure? There are strong arguments for and against competition. Google ‘Children and Competition’, particularly articles by Alfie Kohn, who comes out strongly against competition.

‘Healthy competition’ is a contradiction in terms, says Kohn, teaching children to view other children as obstacles to personal success, rather than enjoying the benefits of cooperation.

Competition has become destructive when you hear a child sobbing about how “useless” they are because they didn’t get a prize, or make it into the desired team. The outcome itself is not the problem, but that misconception, the conclusion drawn by the child. From this misconception grow further problems such as de-motivation, lack of confidence and depression. Very often the pressure comes from parents, however well disguised by statements like ‘I just want what is best for him’ or ‘I know how disappointed she will be if she doesn’t win’.

I spoke to one boy whose mother was exasperated with his schoolwork, thinking that he should be doing better, and his calm and honest response was, ‘I do try my best, but I’m not the brightest in the class and I am OK with that. I prefer sport to work.’ This is a boy who is very popular in his peer group and well liked and respected by his teachers.

‘Failure’ is really just a lower rate of success compared to someone else, but because of competition you get a kind of failure which is psychological.

Not winning is not a final verdict

Outcomes such as not making it into the team, or getting a prize, need to be viewed as information, not verdicts. What can they tell us? Simple answers come up like perhaps needing to study more effectively, or realising that a section of work was not fully understood or a particular sport is not for you.

Children need to learn to read these outcomes objectively in this way. Anyone who saw the movie Apollo 13 will remember the great line ‘failure is not an option’. It speaks of courage and determination, which is inspiring.

Opportunities that challenge us to overcome limits and obstacles are to be encouraged and welcomed. Making mistakes is not to be feared. Mistakes are important and inevitable, the food of champions. All we can do is encourage our children to be the best they can be, not better than the next guy. Each one needs to shine in whatever they came to shine, and in this way make their unique contribution to society.

Is competition counter-productive for children?

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