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Is Competition Healthy For Children?

Do you think competition is healthy for children? In recent years, competition in childhood has become a bit of a dirty word. I remember playing pass the parcel at parties...

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This story originally appeared on Baby Chick

Do you think competition is healthy for children? In recent years, competition in childhood has become a bit of a dirty word. I remember playing pass the parcel at parties as a child. There were no presents in the outer layers of wrapping, only one big “prize” in the middle (cue some very cranky and disappointed kids who just missed out on the present). Now pass the parcel is infrequently played at parties my own child attends. Or if it is, there are prizes in each layer and no big “win” for the final layer.

- Baby Chick

I also recall school carnivals with First, Second, and Third place ribbons. There were no participation stickers or “I ran in a race” badges. If you didn’t place on the podium, there was no recognition. I’m not saying this is good or bad, but we have moved worlds away from this stance in our current social climate. It seems the world wants to do away with competition. Is this bad for our children?

Is Competition Healthy or Unhealthy?

There are two schools of thought as to whether competition is healthy or unhealthy for kids.

Competition is Unhealthy

Some believe that competition and the drive to win can place undue pressure on children. It can result in stress and shame or disappointment if a child doesn’t win something or feels that they don’t measure up. This can impact self-esteem and self-efficacy (the belief that a person can achieve or meet goals). As such, we see shielding to protect children from adverse experiences, and the idea of “winning” is abolished. Or in certain situations, there can be an avoidance of competition altogether.

Children develop at different rates, have different interests and skills, and not all children succeed when engaged in formalized testing or competitive situations. By labeling someone, the “winner” of a game infers there is a “loser.” We can then make further assumptions or judgments about this person based on their ranking or performance in an activity/task. Kids may be cruel at times, and their natural inclination to win (biological drive to amass resources or be the strongest/fastest/best is instinctual for many children) can mean they will actively taunt or identify others who didn’t win or perform very well.

Many parents have to actively teach their children how to be graceful winners. I know that my daughter certainly likes to rub it in my face when she wins a game of snakes and ladders against me (we’re working on it!!). However, the impact on the person who loses can be detrimental. They can develop negative internal labels or beliefs about themselves (I’m not good at spelling, I cannot run fast, etc.), which can be self-perpetuating (they live up to their own expectations). It can also negatively impact their confidence and sense of self-esteem.

Even for children who are successful and “win” these competitions, there can be negative impacts. Sometimes a child will be pushed or gravitate towards something they are skilled at to the detriment of other (well-rounded) activities. By focusing a lot of physical or mental attention on one activity it can result in things like:

  • Burnout – losing interest or passion in an activity. They can feel tired or overwhelmed, negatively impacting their performance in their given area of interest.
  • Overuse or injury – this is related to physical skills or sporting competitions.
  • Well-being – children cannot win all the time or every time. If their sense of self-esteem is solely wrapped up in winning or one activity, it can be crushing for their well-being.

Competition is Healthy

Child development experts point out that some competition can be good for children. It helps set them up for later in life when they don’t get that pay rise they were hoping for or don’t win a big contract at work. The skills developed in competition can be fundamental. Skills such as turn-taking (for team sports), development of empathy (understanding what it feels like to be on the receiving end of “not winning”), and also resilience. Competitive activities can also serve as opportunities for children to learn about critical social interactions (like turn-taking, cooperation, and communication skills). Also, they can achieve a high sense of esteem from working towards a goal and achieving it.

Despite best efforts to remove ranking like First, Second, and Third Place, children will still know if they succeeded at an activity or game. And while many sports clubs remove scoring in the early years, nearly everyone on and off the field knows who performed the best. The way competition is viewed and treated by the people surrounding the child matters in whether competition is “healthy” or not. If winning is the only time a child receives a compliment or positive feedback about themselves, competition can become unhealthy. However, from a more adaptive or healthy perspective, competition can help children learn the value of hard work. It is not always the most gifted or brightest who succeed. It’s those who practice, work hard, bounce back from adversity (or loss) and keep at it!

For competition to be healthy or adaptive, we also need to support our children to develop resilience and the internalized message that “winning isn’t everything.” Parents can help define accomplishment and success as not just winning but improving or perfecting the skills required.

We also need to set our kids up to understand that we will not always win. Helping them hone the emotional regulation skills that will help them cope with loss is an important life lesson. We can also do this by commending and complementing their efforts (rather than complimenting the win). Additionally, focus on learnings or takeaway messages after a loss rather than on the loss itself. We can also model appropriate behaviors like acceptance and positive responses after a loss (focusing on what we can work on next time and what did go well).

So is competition healthy or not?

The jury is out on whether competition is healthy for children or not. But it is important to recognize that in life, children will not always come out on top. They might not always win or get their way. They will be exposed to situations that require graceful acceptance and resilience to move past such events throughout their lives. While competition itself may certainly turn negative, there are also many ways that it can be healthy. We as parents must support our children and frame their perception and reaction to competition to set them up for success in later life.

Resources:
Eime, R. M., Young, J. A., Harvey, J. T., Charity, M. J., & Payne, W. R. (2013). A systematic review of the psychological and social benefits of participation in sport for children and adolescents: informing the development of a conceptual model of health through sport. International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity, 10(98). doi: 10.1186/1479-5868-10-98
Hansen, D. M., Larson, R. W., & Dworkin, J. B. (2003). What adolescents learn in organized youth activities: A survey of self-reported developmental experiences. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 13(1), 25-55. Doi: 10.1111/1532-7795.1301006