Kids’ competition: The good, the bad and the ugly

Are you unsure whether competitions are good or bad for your child? Well, in a fiercely competitive world, we certainly can’t do away with competitions. However, what we need is healthy competition.

By Dr Priscilla J S Selvaraj

Kids’ competition: The good, the bad and the ugly

Competitions – are they good or bad for children? This topic has been debated upon quite hotly on various platforms. While some may argue that competition is definitely healthy, others would stubbornly take the opposite stand as the famous author Alfie Kohn did, in his book, ‘No Contest: The Case Against Competition’. However, most researchers have come up with a neutral stand. For, just as there are two sides to a coin, competition too has its both ‘better’ as well as ‘bitter’ side.

So, here’s the good, the bad and the ugly of competition -

The good...

Kids’ competition: The good, the bad and the ugly

1. Offers a taste of both success and loss: Those famous lines from the poem ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling – ‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same’, say it all. Participating in competitions enables children to both enjoy success as well as learn to face a loss gracefully. How many times have we seen tennis greats offering a friendly handshake to their equally great rivals across the net after championship points despite losing? Well, that’s what competition teaches you – whether it is a win or a loss, you learn to accept both.

2. Identifies strengths and weaknesses: Taking part in competitions helps children identify their true potential, hidden talents and areas of improvement. Don’t we all know the famous Aesop’s fable, ‘The hare and the tortoise’? Before the race, would the tortoise have ever thought it would win, that too with such a margin? Likewise, would the hare have dreamt even in the wildest of its dreams that it would lose a ‘running race’ against the slow-coach tortoise? Well, the race brought out the tortoise’s strength, ‘slow and steady’, and the hare’s weakness, ‘over-confidence and complacence’.

3. Instils discipline: Harry S Truman, former President of the United States, said, “In reading the lives of great men, I found that the first victory they won was over themselves. Self-discipline with all of them came first.” Competitions give children this self-discipline as they involve a whole lot of preparation, planning and practice. Also, competitions mean playing by the rules of the game. This adherence to rules ensures children develop a sense of fair play.

4. Inculcates team spirit: When it comes to events involving group activities, children develop a co-operative attitude and become good team players. If the team has to win, every individual should give his best. Therefore, children learn to participate keenly without any reservation and collaborate with each other.

5. Strengthens determination and will power: Competitions fuel the desire to win and, therefore, make children develop a strong will and become determined. These are key qualities they would require for achieving success in all areas of life.

6. Imparts the value of hard work: Success doesn’t come easily. It cannot be achieved overnight. It requires hours of consistent and sustained effort. Children will learn to be like the Ant who worked round the year to save grain and not like the Grasshopper who danced away merrily to only regret later.

7. Boosts self-esteem: Participating in competitions ‘ups’ children’s level of esteem and builds their confidence. It helps drive away feelings of being unsure of oneself. And, when it comes to winning, it certainly gives a ‘high’. Thus, competitions help children develop a ‘feel-good’ image about themselves.

The bad...

Kids’ competition: The good, the bad and the ugly

1. Implies that winning is everything: The word competition immediately invokes the image of winning. The Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary defines competition as, ‘a situation in which people or organizations compete with each other for something that not everyone can have’. Well, that says it all. Not all can win; neither is winning everything. In fact, the word has its origins in the Latin word ‘competere’ meaning ‘to strive for’, that is, to try hard to achieve something. But, somewhere down the line, the focus seems to have turned away from ‘striving’ to just ‘winning’. And, that is when problems begin. Such an attitude that focusses only on winning is unhealthy.

2. Breeds negative feelings: Ironically, the Latin word ‘competere’ became ‘competitio’ meaning ‘rivalry’ before gaining currency in the English language as ‘competition’. So, unfortunately along with all the striving, there is also a sense of rivalry with co-competitors. If this rivalry is healthy it would not pose any problem, but when it becomes unhealthy it would breed feelings of envy, selfishness and pride. Such feelings would impact the relationships children will have with their peers.

3. Causes inferiority complex: When children do not succeed in competitions, they may get bogged down by feelings of diffidence and lack of self-worth. Their ego may get deflated. Also, when there are some ‘favourites’ all the time who would win, and everyone around also favours them, the not-so-successful tend to give up and stop participating altogether. All this can lead to a feeling of inferiority complex, which, in turn, can lead to other emotional health issues.

The ugly...

Kids’ competition: The good, the bad and the ugly

1. Triggers hatred: Not just envy, unhealthy competition gives way to also feelings of hostility. A simple seed of jealousy sown in the heart can grow into violence and aggression. Whether it was the Biblical Cain’s murder of his brother Abel or closer in history, in 1994, the figure skater Nancy Kerrigan (a gold-medal favourite for the Olympics that year) being attacked by her chief rival’s ex-husband, it all points to unhealthy rivalry causing hatred. Such feelings will not help children in any way. They need to establish good relations with fellow-competitors and learn to appreciate when others win.

2. Forces resorting to any means to win: Competitions, at their worst, can make participants defy ethics so much so that their means do not justify the ends. Such means can range from minor cases of cheating and breaking rules to using drugs to enhance performances. When such a feeling sets in – that ‘no matter what, I should win’ – it will pave the way for the corrosion of values and principles. This is certainly not something we want to happen to our children.

Tips for parents

Dos

  • Teach your child to appreciate other people's talent, effort and extraordinary skills.
  • Inculcate in her a sense of fair-play.
  • Appreciate him for his potential and the efforts he puts in to the areas where he is talented.
  • Make him realise the importance of team and collaborative work.

Don'ts

  • Never give the impression that winning is everything in life.
  • Don't discourage or scold your child when she loses in any competition.
  • Never encourage any negative feelings he may develop about someone or if he considers someone a rival.
  • Don't be lenient when she flouts rules or is careless about regulations.

The final say

Let us encourage our children to engage in healthy competition which will ‘promote excellence, ethics and enjoyment’ as the American educational psychologist Dr David Shields and education Superintendent Christopher Funk mention in their article, ‘Teach to Compete’, published in Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators (2011).

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