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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Is competition bad for your kid's health?

Competition is to self-esteem as sugar is to teeth.

Really? On this day, the first day Son goes to his first State tournament, really? That's what Alfie Kohn summarized in The Case Against Competition.

It got me thinking about competition and my kids. Was it really too much to ask them to become good people after all of this liberal competition once adolescence was over?

Kohn argues that for one to win, another must lose. Kohn also argues that only the winners are the ones who find competition healthy. Seems a little black and white, Kohn, doesn't it? A little ying and yang, yes and no, ahem - win and loss?

I was one of those kids who played for a school who's team sports always, and I mean ALWAYS, failed. In a AA school, somehow we were always 2nd to crap. (Crap being an even smaller town whose school age girls who used chewing tobacco.) However, even through all of that failure, each one of us excelled at something. Sometimes it was computer science, writing, or political science. Sometimes it was at an individual sport - perhaps Track or Cross Country. Maybe one of us could really hunt like the big guys. But we did excel, nonetheless.

Now this phenomenon is not based on some hippie belief that each of us have our own beauty. We are, today, bonafide successful human beings! I do accept that some of us are not quite, what I would call, successful nor human. But that has very little correlation with competition.

"Competition is a recipe for hostility. By definition, not everyone can win a contest. If one child wins, another cannot. This means that each child comes to regard others as obstacles to his or her own success. Forget fractions or home runs; this is the real lesson our children learn in a competitive environment."

Oh for god's sake. Seriously? I really find this offensive. And I use this article as an example of the millions out there that share the same sentiment. O.M.G.!  I'm more of a leaner of a winner and a finisher, not loser, myself. I lean towards finding ways to finish a task off gracefully and with class, whether or not it blows anyone's mind. So what if you didn't get first? Did you have the courage to try? Did you finish with your head held high and with a smile on your face? Good! Great job!

Turns out, there's a pile of Healthy Competition articles out there as well. Here's a simple, lovely one.

So when you encourage your child to win, do it with grace, folks. Be the role model that does exactly that, model a fine example for your child to emulate. Don't make competition look like the bad guy.


  1. Wait, is this Alfie Kohn saying that losing is *bad*? Oh noes, I've been doing it wrong! If losing was bad then wouldn't the big races, the big competitions, the really hard things like the Tour de France, marathons, ultra-marathons, the Olympics only just have the few people that can win? Why enter given that the chance of winning is going to be 1 in 100 or worse and one's esteem will surely be devastated! And since everyone loses the lottery ... well we are a nation of tooth decayed esteems.


    Competition exists in our culture in endless environs: school, work, sports, marriage, entertainment and so on. Competition is embedded in our culture so deeply it might very well be human nature. There are winners and losers in everything, everyday, always. Losing is part of life, unavoidable and intrinsic. Chances are, if you are alive, you just lost something.

    I don't see competition as bad in and of itself. What is important is our attitude towards it - what our internal wiring and decision making processes use it for and do with it.

    I think it all boils down to finding what you are good at and like, and doing the best you can at it. And if I've got the right genes, the right training and the right opportunities, maybe I'll even win.

    If I can exemplify and teach my kids that one lesson then I think their esteem will be plenty immune from decay.

  2. My sentiments exactly! Just boiled down into one heck of an eloquent comment. Well done and here here!