Should We Teach or Discourage Competition in Kids?

competition and cooperation, competition and kids

Should kids this young be competing?

American kids grow up in pretty competitive environments, and parents don’t always agree whether that’s a good thing. Some parents say they might as well get used to it, since life is pretty much dog-eat-dog. Others think setting kids up to constantly compete is damaging to how kids feel about themselves, creates a negative view of the world and, for some personalities, pretty much assures they’ll stop even trying.

But what does the science say about competition? Is it healthy or damaging? Should parents teach it or avoid it? Is it personality driven, parental driven, the product of a competitive society?

Matt Richtel, a writer for the New York Times and the father of a super competitive son, looked in to what the experts have to say and what he, as a dad, can do to help his son win in the game of life.

The short answer is that both extremes are missing out — there’s a sweet spot in the middle where competition and cooperation, combined, win.

The thing about competition is that it’s not the incentive plan that bosses, teachers, parents and people trying to motivate people often think it is. Some see it as destructive, particularly for kids, he points out. Others conclude that competition is how people get better at certain skills. But both are overly simplistic.

Richtel describes a study in which several groups of 9- to 14-year olds shot free-throws and scored points.

From the Times:

… [O]ne player was pitted against another (direct competition); when two players worked together to get the highest combined score (cooperation); and when two players joined forces to try to score more than another pair (cooperation combined with competition).

The combination of cooperation and competition resulted in greater satisfaction and often in higher scores as well. “It’s as consistent of a finding as we’ve had,” Dr. [John] Tauer, [a psychology professor at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minn.,] said. “Kids prefer the combination of competition and cooperation. It’s a significant increase in enjoyment.”

He also found that parents can help shape the way kids view competition and express themselves competitively. Specifically, parents can encourage their kids to praise effort and excellence (process) rather than focus exclusively on the end result (product). For Richtel, that meant stating outright to his son something like, “hey, don’t forget to compliment your friends on their basketball skills.”

And don’t worry, no one, not even the ones who say competition is damaging, think every kid should get a trophy.

Do you have competitive kids? Do you encourage competition or try to take winning and losing out of any game?

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