"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Encouraging Competition In Children–Good Or Bad?

Competition between people, families, societies, and nations seems to be one of the most incontrovertible aspects of human history.  From the dawn of history, man competed for the best mate, the best land, the best house, and the biggest piece of the pie. Competition is at the very heart of natural selection, winnowing as it does the weak from the strong, ensuring that only the best genes survive.  It is hard-wired into us all just as the flight reflex or the sexual urge. Competition begins early, and sibling rivalry is known to all parents.  Children don’t parse the psychology or physiology of competition, but know it implicitly and intuitively.  Siblings compete with each other for the greatest share of their parents’ love and attention and for an equal share of everything available to them.

If anything, parents spend far more time prying fighting siblings apart than encouraging competition.  There may be the odd child who is content to take what his sister dishes out, avoids conflict, and is perfectly happy to play with whatever toys he is left with after his predacious sibling makes periodic raids; but generally brothers and sisters are up to the battle.  Some of the fights I witnessed – and of course tried to break up – between my son and daughter were truly epic.  It was a spectacular, scary, but truly impressive show of will, desire, and a fiery self-righteousness that seemed to have no bounds.

So why is there any discussion at all about competition between siblings or between children and other children?  Of course they will compete with each other, and out of the crucible of the playground, the classroom, and the backyard will come some version of Americanus Competitivus.  After some trial and error children will find that arena in which they are likely to have competitive success – some on the playing field, others in the laboratory, still others on the dance floor.  Bullies, the wild card in the game because they wish to intimidate any and all comers, help to confirm children’s choices.  Can they stand up to bullies’ taunts and to the less threatening but equal jealousy of cohorts?  Do they stand up for their choices and principles or back down?

I recently commented on an op-ed piece written by the Deans of Harvard and Yale Law School about affirmative action, and one of their justifications for racial preferences were that black applicants, in order to have even seen the Ivy League horizon must have struggled and fought their way out of adversity.  Patronizing and racist as this appears, the deans were right about one thing – there is a distinct value in selecting the most competitive and ambitious among any pool of applicants.

Enter the PC police and their desire to socially engineer a cooperative, more gentle and giving society.  Competitive urges in children should be discouraged, for battles for dominance and supremacy only lead to unhappiness and personal anguish.

Matt Richtel has written a piece in the New York Times (10.8.12) debating the pros and cons of raising competitive children:

“The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that competition is destructive, particularly, but not exclusively, for children,” said Alfie Kohn, an author and speaker whose views on the negative aspects of competition are widely followed in the field of parenting. “It’s a toxic way to raise children.”

He added, “The absence of competition seems to be a prerequisite for excellence in most endeavors, contrary to received wisdom.”

On the other hand many scholars entirely disagree with Kohn.  Competition is not only the natural state of man, but enhances performance:

Many scholars agree that competition is necessary, ingrained and essential. Studies have shown that under certain conditions, competition can improve performance and happiness. People are better off when they are trying to win (rather than trying not to lose), and when they are confident. It also helps if the stakes are very low and the motivation is not just to win, but to achieve mastery.

Those who urge channeling (stifling) the competitive urge in children claim that it is not so difficult.  Children, they say, are not as hardwired as we think, and that they can be diverted from what at birth is an unformed, raw, and incompletely-understood compulsion:

David Shields of St. Louis Community College says:

“Kids have a shallow understanding of competition.  They know the word ‘win’ is used out there; but are not thinking deeply about what they are saying when they say they want to beat [someone]. So Dr. Shields’s first piece of advice was: “Let children work through their fantasies. There’s no problem with that.”

Talk about fantasy! There is no fantasy whatsoever in a child’s desire to win, especially to beat one of his parents.  A child may misjudge his ability to beat his father at ping-pong, and sulk when the (correctly) competitive father does not let him win; but his desire to win is itself not fantasy at all.  It is real, corresponds to the firing of electrical circuits within his hardwiring, and needs to be expressed.

Primary schools today, still under the influence of Sixties ‘progressivism’, try to reconfigure the natural competitive environment of children, and engineer cooperation.  Children who are naturally talented and ambitious in their desire to excel and move quickly to the next level, are put into cooperative boxes and forced to slow their own progress as they help others to learn. This often has the exact opposite result. In classrooms, no matter how they are arranged, there are ‘dumb’ kids and ‘smart’ kids.  The so-called cooperation has highlighted the difference more than a more natural laissez-faire approach.

“One of the biggest culprits in psychology is wanting kids to feel good all the time,” [a prominent psychologist] said. “Trying to avoid competition is making it bigger than it needs to be.”

One result of recent research is that the combination of cooperation and competition is the most satisfying configuration of all.  Kids that play on competitive sports teams feel more satisfaction than those who do not. This is not surprising, since human beings have banded together for competitive advantage for millennia.

Another theory that still tries to take the edge of competition is this:

The greatest [tennis] players are problem solvers. When they play against other greats, they relish the challenge of solving a difficult problem. Winning or losing is simply a measure of whether or not they have solved the problem.

Bah, humbug.  These guys want to win, period, and the complexities of strategy are simply part of the contest.

Socially engineer competition out of us?  Bad idea.  Get over it.

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