Healthy competition – an oxymoron?

Shruthi Rao questions the usefulness of competition as it promotes unnecessary, and often unhealthy, struggle for power among children


A children’s badminton match is in progress. The parents of the children stand on the sidelines, with furrowed brows and clenched fists, and they shout out instructions to their children: “be alert”, “hit that”, “run faster”. At the end of the match, you can see—on one hand, a victorious child and her glowing parents, and on the other, a morose child and her parents who look crestfallen. Substitute this event with anything else—another sport, a dance/music competition, an examination—and you will see similar scenes.

Unfortunately, society has evolved in such a way that competitive environments for young children have resulted in overbearing parents thrusting their own expectations and dreams on their children. In the process, the children who win constantly get so used to winning that they may not be able to ever gracefully accept failure, and may even resort to unhealthy strategies to win. The losers, on the other hand, lose more than just the game—they lose confidence and self-esteem, and may never reach their full potential in life.

Is it really worth putting our children through all this?

Popular opinion states that competition is essential for growth and improvement. It makes you perform better than you would have if you didn’t have someone you wanted to beat.  Encouraging competitiveness among young children prepares them for real life, they say, where every step is a competition—and children need to be ready for it.

But of course, popular opinion also says that competition has to be healthy. Unhealthy competition is where you react negatively to others’ success, and feel joy at others’ failures, and will want to win by hook or by crook. But is there such a thing as “healthy competition?”

Competition by itself is a struggle for power, which results in winners and losers. A quick search in the thesaurus throws up these synonyms for competition—clash, fight, bout, struggle, antagonism. By no stretch of imagination can we attach ‘healthy’ to any of these words and not make it sound like an oxymoron.

A game of dice with my daughter

Very young children can probably not even wrap their thoughts around the concept of competition. I remember the first few games of  snakes-and-ladders I played with my daughter who had just learned to count. She was excited if either of us landed on a ladder square, and she groaned when either of us met a snake. In her view, we weren’t pitted against each other. We were just stumbling through the world of snakes and ladders together.  And then, in one game, she was at 99,  and I had just been swallowed by a snake and had gone down to a lowly 6. She voluntarily skipped her turns, and insisted that I play until I reached 98 or 99, after which we crossed the finish line together.

The first thing that occurred to my conditioned brain was, “Oh no, she doesn’t have the desire to win.  How will she survive in this world?”  My next thought was, “Silly woman, this kid has something beautiful—empathy, and the ability to enjoy the game for what it is.  I think she’ll survive.”

Competition sucks the fun out of the learning process

It has been argued that competition is a basic human trait—because of centuries of competing for food and shelter and mates. But I suspect that young children do not have a sense of competition unless it is taught to them. They are motivated by their friends’ performances, yes, but not in the sense of a competition.

I’m sure we’ve all seen this at play in the park. One child hesitates to climb the jungle gym, saying it’s too difficult. But the moment he sees his peer do it, he wants to do it too. There are no winners or losers here, but one child is inspiring another to reach a higher level. And this is not a competition. Not yet, anyway.

It is the parents who put competition in a child’s head. The moment they say, “Let’s see who can climb higher”—Bam! There is now a winner and a loser, and one child is upset and one is proud—it forms the basis for their future interactions, which might not be entirely free of jealousy and negativity. And you can say goodbye to fun right there.

Young children can be taught to get motivated by their peers without introducing competition into the picture. Some children are very self-motivated, and aspire to better themselves. Others aren’t, and that’s okay. There are ways to inspire them. But competition, I feel, kills the joy of learning, and the exhilaration of doing something better than yesterday. In a competition, there is a reward at the end of it for the one who “wins.” But in self-betterment, there is a reward anyway—that you are better than you were yesterday. That you can sing this song that you couldn’t yesterday. That you can play this shot, or draw that picture, or run this distance, something that you couldn’t yesterday. Like the singer Celine Dion said, “I am not in competition with anybody but myself. My goal is to beat my last performance.”

When the emphasis is not on winning, but on mastering a skill, there is a change in the way a child approaches life’s problems. And when, further in life, she does meet competition, she will take it as a challenge. A personal challenge: Can I perform well enough to do better than this person, who is at the top of his game? Then she’ll tend to treat it like solving a problem—and the high of solving a problem is, well, a reward in itself!

And the best part? There’s no pulling the rug from under the other’s feet, or feel joy and vindication at the other’s loss. No need to trample over another to feel good or be called successful. This kind of atmosphere does exist in some schools and cultures, where children use each other as benchmarks to do better, and help each other do better. There is no exultation if someone else stumbles, or jealousy if they do better. And this is the kind of environment that we should want our children to be in.

But is it really that simple? Perhaps it is. Perhaps competition is overrated, and cooperation and collaboration is what will make us reach greater heights and make progress. Perhaps we need to stand back and look at life from a different perspective, and not see everything as a competition—perhaps we’ll find something valuable to take away from it.

This was first published in the February 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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