For some time now the topic of competition among primary and secondary school-age children has been keenly debated. On the one hand, some feel that too much competition ostracises less able children, whatever the task, and on the other, that lack of competition may simply result in apathy towards life.
I’m inclined to side with the ‘pro-competition’ camp on this, not because I necessarily feel it will impact children and adolescents in a hugely detrimental way, I just think that kids will compete whether they’re singled out for praise or not, it’s part of human nature, it’s who we are.
My pro-competition stance relates, however, more to it’s pro’s than an absence of cons.
The very act alone of winning or losing is, I feel, developmentally important. Very few people have grown up in life as invariably one or the other, good at some things, average or poor at others, that’s life.
Growing up surrounded by sport, puzzles, games and riddle books, my drive to compete was strong, and what I’ve found that’s garnered, more than anything, are a sense of compassion and a strong urge to contribute.
Particularly in team sports/activities, awareness of both our individual roles among the group and the collective interactions (or lack thereof) of the team as a whole are developed. In a competitive environment a child is likely to first introspectively consider their own performance and if and how they can improve it.
With greater experience and maturity, they may then start to view their own performance as part of the collective group goal, ‘how can my performance help my team to improve’. This is powerful as it allows the child to consider how their actions affect others in a group environment or community, develops empathy, and a strong sense of compassion.
The dangers of denying competition are two-fold. Those with high levels of ability are taught that their efforts will go largely unrewarded and that, no matter their personal dedication to skill development, they will be afforded the same positive feedback as their peers, regardless of the result.
Children on the would be losing side are denied the opportunity to receive constructive feedback as to how they could improve, and as we know, rewards given either without self-perceived effort or success of victory often feel empty and quickly lose their reverence.
Instead of demonishing competition we should be emphasising the value of self-evaluation, ‘how did you feel that went?’ and constructive feedback, ‘here’s, I think, how you could improve…maybe give that a try next time’. This gives power to the performer and allows them to take ownership.
What’s more, I’d propose that, giving children the opportunity to respectfully offer ‘inter-group’ feedback to peers as to how they could boost the team’s performance, would have significant developmental benefits as far as compassion for others and contribution to the group are concerned.
Well managed, thoughtful group competition, in my mind, can be an invaluable teaching tool, a microcosm for the wider world and the creativity, communication, empathy and development really needed to pursue life goals.