Updated: Jan 7
Many families and schools are opting out of academic competition, with good reason too!
The past few decades have given us an overpour of research about how damaging competition can be to our children’s mental and emotional health. Experts in education and psychology agreed that competition does more harm than good for the growing child. Parenting books also adopted the idea and preached competition’s damaging effects.
Problem is, competition is alive and well in every stage of our lives. It is innate and it is not going anywhere. Of course, competition can be very damaging, but it has its benefits too. So, are we really helping our children when we deprive them of interacting with academic competition?
Measuring the effect of academic competition is fairly easy now that we have a generation or so of both extremes to compare. Below, I will be comparing extremes to clarify the effect. However, most of us - families and educators alike - are probably somewhere in the middle.
At one extreme, parents and teachers believe that academic competition is damaging, they will strive to have children believe that they are always winners. Often, if they work hard - or just ask - for something they are sure to get it. Children grow up believing that the world is full of nice, hardworking people who are eager to help each other.
At school, there is no failure because there are no grades. There is probably no homework also and in most cases not a single exam in sight. Children are mostly happy and spend more time playing and enjoying their childhood.
In my experience, these children “create” ways to compete and compare anyway. If they can not find ways to compete academically, they will compare physical features, social status, family situation, toys..etc. and they can get very mean about it. Adults may try to shift attention away from competition, but there is no way around it. In a way, we are shooting ourselves in the foot for letting children compare and compete in unproductive ways.
At the other extreme, families and teachers believe that competition builds character and prepares for success. Children growing up in this environment are often serious and obedient. They are busy children who have chores and responsibilities in addition to sports and activities that keep them from enjoying a carefree childhood to the fullest.
At school, they are constantly competing academically and taking tests and exams on a regular basis. These children would get in a lot of trouble for making mistakes. They look like their lives are too organized and that their childhood is incomplete.
In my experience, these children have no problem with succeeding in stressful situations. They have a strong sense of responsibility and self-discipline. Sometimes too hard on themselves. Actually, many are negligent of their own feelings and don’t know how to relax and enjoy themselves without turning even that into a competition of some sort.
In a way, we are also shooting ourselves in the foot for raising children who don’t have a sense of who they are and how to have fun.
Then highschool hits and both worlds collide.
Children who grew up in a competitive environment zip through high school with no problem academically, but fall behind socially and emotionally. Those who grew up in competition-free environments find themselves face to face with exams, workload and time management stress, and failure for the first time in their lives. Stress eats at their confidence and they end up suffering academically and emotionally. Bottom line, neither situation is ideal.
As parents and educators we have a tough balance to strike. How could we give our children a chance to live their childhood with less stress and still teach them to master competition in a healthy and productive way?