Playing field or battleground: Can competition be healthy for kids?

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 4 2012 4:40 p.m. MST

Researchers analyzed hundreds of research papers on the subject of competition and performance. Their findings, which are to be published in an upcoming issue of the Psychological Bulletin, a journal of the American Psychological Association, showed that competition sometimes enhances performance, but sometimes it does not.

"There is good evidence that competition has a destructive psychological effect on children," said Alfie Kohn, author and speaker whose criticisms of competition have been widely followed in the field of parenting.

Kohn holds that children succeed in spite of competition, not because of it. "Most of us were raised to believe that we do our best work when we're in a race — that without competition we would all become fat, lazy and mediocre. It's a belief that our society takes on faith. It's also false," Kohn wrote in No Contest, a book contesting the case of competition.

The vast pool of research, however, is dominated by experts whose arguments are less extreme. "Competition can have two contrasting effects on children's success later on in life, depending largely upon the circumstances by which competition exists," said David Johnson, professor emeritus of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota who did pioneering work on the conditions that make competition enjoyable and enhance performance.

Winning must be relatively unimportant, Johnson said. If the stakes are low, the emphasis is placed upon sheer enjoyment of the activity.

All participants must have a reasonable chance to win, Johnson said. "If you're playing volleyball against the two women who won their third or fourth gold medal in beach volleyball at the Olympics, you're not having very much fun because you know you don't have a chance to win and they could make you look very foolish."

There must be clear and specific rules, procedures or criteria for winning, starting and stopping, Johnson said. If a participant recognizes that the activity is fair, he or she is apt to not feel cheated. If it's ambiguous, Johnson said, a game tends to become destructive.

"Hypercompetitive people — people who compete in a very serious way — are typically unemployable; they don't have good friends; they don't have good marriages; they aren't good parents; they aren't good neighbors; and by and large they can lead very miserable lives," Johnson said. "It's a sure path to depression and unhappiness, to feel that you have to win every time, every place."

Competing off the field

The basic life skills learned in healthy competition can be developed in many areas beyond the sports arena, said Hilary Levey Friedman, psychologist and author of Competitive Kid Capital, an upcoming book about what kids need to succeed in today's highly credentialed and competitive world.

Parents can initiate games that involve luck and skill in the home so kids learn that even if they work hard and are the most skilled, it may not always work out.

Many chess competitions in schools involve a strong team element and teach values of sportsmanship, allowing children to work together in teams and shake hands before and after the match to show respect to their competitors.

Additional cooperative challenges that are more academically focused, such as the science Olympiad and robotic competitions, require cooperative competition and allow children to learn how to perform in front of others.

Ballet, ballroom, orchestra and choir can help children learn how to work with others and bounce back from a loss to learn how to recover in a safe way and in a loving environment, Friedman said.

"Of course, everyone wants to win; it feels good to win at something," Sileo said. "But nobody wins every time. Whether it be that they don't get accepted to the college of their choice or they don't get the house of their dreams or they went for a job interview and it fell through, equipping our kids with the skills to be a good sport and a team player and a cheerful participant will lead to much greater success and happiness later in life."

Rachel Lowry is a reporter intern for the Deseret News. She has lived in London and is an English graduate from Brigham Young University. Contact her at rachel.lowry@gmail.com or visit www.rachellowry.blogspot.com.

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