I come from a very competitive family. I don’t need to convince you of this, just join us for a game night. But when we were kids, it was not ‘a little friendly competition’ as they say. It was fight-to-the-death, painful, bitter, teary competition, which might be why we stopped playing games altogether. As a result, my mum and many others are very skeptical about the need or usefulness or healthiness of competition.
When we were in school, there was always a first, second and third place in each class, kids who got the highest overall scores. This was the thing though- they were always the same kids. Well, maybe it slightly changed, but it was the same 10% of the class who battled it out. The rest of us just accepted that we were mediocre or even ‘poor in studies’. So what difference did it make to laud those three who bagged the three highest ranks?
In school it seemed as if all competition was set up just to make the majority of us feel bad. It was the same at birthday parties. There were the three lucky winners at every game, and everyone else was just a loser. And I was always a loser. Somehow or the other I ALWAYS lost at Housie aka Tambola aka Bingo.
So I have genuine sympathy for the ‘We can all be winners!’ line of thought. Why not set things up for kids to succeed? Give them a taste of success so they don’t feel like they’re always failing?
But the danger of that philosophy is that we may be undervaluing perseverance, hard work, ambition and resourcefulness. Why would anyone try to be better if they are rewarded for not trying at all? How do we get kids (or people) excited about a task if there is no reward at the end?
Then again, even when competition does motivate people to work harder, it usually also makes people think that someone has to lose in order for them to win. It encourages selfishness, and pushing others down to get ahead. And even when someone does their very, very, best, they can still think of themselves as losers, just because someone got an extra point.
This is a balance I think that works-
For little kids at birthday parties or parties in general, the aim is to have fun. So forget about ‘preparing them for the real world’, and find a way for everyone to want to participate and HAVE FUN. That means everyone gets to be a winner, just for participating, and that’s okay! Lots of prizes! Treasure hunts with treasures for everyone! No humiliating forfeits! Whose idea of fun is that anyway?
Encourage self-competition. Get kids to try to do better than they did before, to better their own scores, instead of someone else’s. I did that one year when I was teaching a third standard class in a village school. I had just 13 students, but as usual there were two kids always at the top of the class, and two kids always at the bottom. So towards the end of the year, after some exams, instead of writing the first three ranks on the blackboard as all the other teachers did, I sat down with each student (and their parents for those who showed up), showed them their report cards, and compared their scores in that exam with their scores in the first half of the year. Even the little girl who was at the bottom of the class had improved tremendously, so she got as much congratulations as the kids who got the highest scores because he had basically breezed through without much effort.
Give people achievable goals and celebrate them when they do achieve them. Don’t give prizes just for participation unless participation itself is the challenge. Everyone can’t win the race, but everyone can finish it, and we should cheer them on when they do! if someone regularly loses at all academic competitions, find them something they can excel at. Everyone needs to be good at something, and see hard work pay off in some area of their life. But that may mean that their parents or teachers or even friends need to help them find that thing.
In classrooms, use team competition instead of individual competition. Competition does motivate people, so just make sure you use it in the right way. Even then, make it possible for both teams to win, so they are not trying to beat each other, but to reach a goal in a certain amount of time. “You get five points for discipline, five points for participation, five points for everyone on the team completing assignments, and five points for correct answers. The first team to reach 50 points gets an extra half an hour on the playground or in the library.” That way they help each other, keep each other accountable, and give them a reason to try.
Build an environment where collaboration is encouraged. We keep saying that they need to be competitive to survive in the real world. But have we thought about the fact that these are the kids who can build a new world? A world where we CAN all win, there IS enough for everybody if we help each other, and there ARE creative solutions that don’t involve pushing others down? But the building blocks of that new world are people willing to try something new.
Give people challenging and fun projects to work on together. The task or the game itself is enough reason to work hard and put in an effort. Whether or not they win, they enjoyed the game, or created something new, and that high of that achievement will give them the motivation to push themselves or try something new. Unlike games which depend solely on the pleasure of winning, which leave most people with a lack of interest in even trying again.
Teach people to be good winners and good losers. Teach them to be fair, that winning really isn’t everything, that it is not honourable or funny to hiss, “Cheater!” when they are losing, to shake the hand of the opposing team after the game, and to be willing to acknowledge and even applaud others’ success. Teach them that it is better to lose honestly than win dishonestly. Teach winners to be gracious, to find an encouraging word to say to their depressed antagonists, and not to crow over them. These are life-skills worth having!
Competition can be good, if used wisely and prudently, and in the right context. If not, it can be pretty bad and things can get quite ugly. Also remember that different methods work for different people. You just need to judge whether it is healthy or unhealthy competition, and if it's working as it is meant to, and you can usually sense that by the fruit- bitterness, resentment and passivity, or motivation, excitement and determination.