Is the world full of competition
The world as a competitive arena
When it comes to competitive performance, we Americans typically recognize only two legitimate views: committed advocacy and limited advocacy.
The first view is that the more thoroughly we familiarize our children (and ourselves) with competition, the better. Competition shapes character and generates top performance. The second attitude admits that our society has gone too far with the need to be number one and that we push and push our children too hard to become winners - but insists that competition be healthy and fun can if we don't overdo it.
I took the second view. But after studying this subject for several years by looking at research in psychology, sociology, biology, education, and other fields, I came to believe that neither view is correct. Competition is generally not a good idea, but it's not just that we overdo it or misuse it. The problem lies with the competition itself. The right level of competition for our children is to have no competition at all, and the phrase "healthy competition" is a contradiction in terms.
That may sound extreme, if not un-American. But some things are not all bad if you do them to excess; some things are inherently destructive. Competition, which simply means that one person can only win when another loses, is one of those things. It is always unnecessary and inappropriate, whether at school, at play or at home.
Think for a moment about the goals you have for your children. In all likelihood, you want them to develop healthy self-esteem and consider themselves generally good people. You want your children to be successful, to achieve the peak performance they are capable of. You want them to have loving and supportive relationships. And you want them to enjoy life.
These are all good goals. But there is no need for competition to achieve this - it actually undermines it.
Most people lose in competitive encounters, and it is obvious why that leads to self-doubt. But even a victory does not strengthen the personality; a child is only gleefully happy for a while.
Studies have shown that self-esteem becomes dependent on external evaluation sources through competition: a person's worth is defined by what they have achieved. Worse still, the more people he has defeated, the greater his standing.
In a competitive culture, a child is told that being good is not enough - it has to triumph over others. Success is then defined as victory, although these are two completely different things. Even if the child wins, the whole thing becomes, from a psychological point of view, a vicious circle: They have to keep competing in order to feel good.
When I mentioned this on a talk show on national television, my objections were dismissed by the parents of a seven-year-old tennis champ named Kyle, who were invited with me. Kyle had been used to winning since he was given a tennis racket at the age of two. At the end of the show someone in the audience asked him how he felt when he lost. Kyle bowed his head and replied in a low voice, "Ashamed."
This does not mean that children should not learn discipline and persistence, that they should not be encouraged to achieve their goals, or even have a passing acquaintance with failure. But none of this involves winning and losing - that is, having to defeat other children and worry about being defeated. When it comes to cooperation rather than competition in the classroom and on sports fields, the children feel better. They work with others instead of against them, and their self-esteem is not based on whether they win the spelling contest or the baseball game.
Most of us grew up with the idea that we only do our best when we're in a competitive battle - that without competition we'd all end up fat, lazy, and mediocre. That's a view our society just believes. It is also wrong.
There is solid evidence that productivity in the workplace is affected by competition. The examinations in the classroom are even more convincing. David Johnson, a professor of social psychology at the University of Minnesota, and his colleagues reviewed any studies from 1924 to 1980 that they could find on the subject. 65 studies found that children learn better when they work cooperatively rather than competitively, eight found the opposite and 36 found no significant difference. The more complex the learning task, the worse the children fared in a competitive environment.
Brandeis University psychologist Teresa Amabile was more interested in creativity. In one study, she asked children to make “silly collages”. Some competed for prizes, some didn't. Seven artists then independently rated the children's work. It found that those who tried to win produced collages that were much less creative than those of the others - less spontaneous, complex, and varied.
More and more scientists across the country have concluded that children do not learn better when education is turned into competition. Why? First, competition often unsettles children, which affects concentration. Second, competition does not allow them to share their talents and opportunities, as is common in cooperation, so that they cannot learn from each other.
Plus, trying to be number one distracts them from what they're supposed to learn. It may seem paradoxical, but when a student is focused on the reward (a top grade, distinction, or trophy), they are less interested in what they are doing. The result: the performance decreases.
Just because forcing kids to outperform one another is counterproductive doesn't mean they can't keep track of how they're getting on. It's no problem comparing their performance to an objective standard (how fast they ran, how many questions they got right) or what they did yesterday or last year. But if we care about our children's intellectual development, we need to recognize that turning learning into competition just doesn't work.
By definition, not everyone can win a competition. If one child wins, another cannot. This means that every child sees others as a hindrance to their own success. That is the real lesson our children learn in a competitive environment.
Competition causes children to envy winners, reject losers (there is no mean word in our [American] language than “loser!” - “loser!”) And are suspicious of almost everyone. Competition makes it difficult to view others as possible friends or co-workers: even if you are not my rival today, you might be tomorrow.
That doesn't mean that competitors always have to loathe each other. But trying to outdo someone is not exactly trustworthy - it would indeed be absurd to trust someone who benefits from failure. At best, competition leads to people being suspicious of others; In the worst case, it invites aggression. Existing relationships are stretched to the limit, while new friendships are often nipped in the bud.
Here, too, research that I discuss in my book "No Contest: The Case Against Competition" (1) helps to explain the destructive effects of the winner / loser classification. When children compete, they are less able to take on another's perspective - that is, to see the world from someone else's point of view. One study conclusively showed that competitive children are less empathic than others; another study showed that competing children are less generous.
Cooperation, on the other hand, is a wonderful way of helping children communicate effectively, trusting others and accepting those who are different from them. Competition affects this objective and often leads to downright anti-social behavior. The choice is ours: we can blame the individual children who cheat, become violent and withdraw, or we can face the fact that competitiveness itself is responsible for such evils.
As an aside, studies also show that competition between groups is no better than competition between individuals. Children do not have to fight a common enemy to experience the joys of companionship or to achieve success. True cooperation does not require triumph over another group.
It is remarkable, if you think about it, that we teach our children to have fun by playing highly structured games in which one person or team has to defeat another.
Let's look at one of the first games our children learn: The Journey to Jerusalem. Now, in each round, a chair and a child are removed until a self-satisfied winner sits down and everyone else has been excluded from the game. I'm sure you know this morose scene from children's birthday parties; the music stops and someone is turned into a loser again, forced to be excluded from the rest of the game and sit by the side with the other unhappy children. This is how children in America learn to have fun.
Terry Orlick, a Canadian game expert, suggests modifying these games so that there are fewer and fewer chairs for all children. In the end, seven or eight giggling, happy children try to squeeze into a single chair. Everyone is having fun and there are no winners or losers.
What applies to this game can be applied to any other leisure activity as well. With a little ingenuity, we can develop games that incorporate difficulty into the rules of the game, rather than considering another person or team as a handicap.
In fact, none of the benefits ascribed to sports or other competitive games require competition. Children can move around a lot without having to fight each other.
Teamwork? Cooperative games allow everyone to work together without creating enemies. Improve skills and set challenges? Here, too, an objective standard or one's own previous performance is completely sufficient.
When Orlick taught a group of children games that were non-competitive, two-thirds of boys and all girls preferred them to games that required opponents. If our cultural idea of good entertainment is based on competition, it could be because we didn't try the alternative.
Competition is detrimental to children's self-esteem, interferes with learning, sabotages relationships, and is not necessary to have fun. But how do you raise a child in a culture that has not yet understood all of this?
There are no easy answers here. But there is a clearly unsatisfactory answer: making your son or daughter competitive so that they fit into the “real world”. This is not desirable for the child - for all the reasons mentioned here - and continues the poison of the competition in the next generation.
Children can be educated about competition, prepared for the destructive forces they will encounter without being trained to take part uncritically.
The arguments against competitive behavior can be presented to them, just as the harm caused by drug abuse or reckless driving can be conveyed to them.
It is up to you to decide how much compromise is appropriate so that your child is not left out or ridiculed in a competitive society.
But at least you can make your decision based on your knowledge of the destructiveness of competition. You can work with other parents, your children's teachers, and coaches to change the structures that put children against one another. You may also want to look for cooperative schools and camps that are starting to take off across the country.
As for reducing rivalry and competition in the family:
Avoid comparing a child's performance with that of a sibling, classmate, or yourself as a child.
Avoid competitions at home (“Who can dry the dishes fastest?”). Pay attention to your usage of language (“Who's the favorite little girl in the world?”), Which underpins competing attitudes.
Never make your love or acceptance dependent on a child's performance. It's not enough to just say, “As long as you've done your best, honey,” and then the child will find that Mama's attitude towards him is very different once he has triumphed over his peers.
Be aware of your power as a role model. If you have to outdo others, regardless of what you say, your child will learn that from you. The lesson becomes even more intense when you use your child to win on your behalf.
Growing up healthy, happy, and creative children is inextricably linked with creating a better society. The first step in achieving both is to recognize that our idea of the benefits of competition is based on myth. There are better ways for our children - and for us - to work, play and live.
Editorial note: Copyright © 1987 by Alfie Kohn. Reprinted from Working Mother magazine and translated by Michelle Warkentin with the express permission of the author. Further information on this topic can be found at: www.alfiekohn.org.
Sources and Notes:
(1) "No Contest: The Case Against Competition" was published by Beltz in 1989 under the title "With united forces: why cooperation is superior to competition".
Alfie Kohn, Born in 1957, is an American author. He has written fourteen books and hundreds of articles on human behavior, upbringing, and parenting, and has lectured at educational conferences, at universities, to parents, and entrepreneurs. Kohn's critical research into competition and rewards has helped transform the thinking of educators, including parents and managers. So far, three books by him have been published in German: “Love and independence”, “The myth of the spoiled child” and “With united forces - Why cooperation is superior to the competition”.
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