Competition for Children – The Olympics

With the olympics on the horizon, we were reminded of this story from (former) PM David Cameron.  Having attended my child’s sports day just last week, I can confirm that ‘competitive’ means different things to different people.  There were stickers for first to third place in every race (as well as stickers for everyone) but genuine comments from the parents included “I can’t believe we washed his hair last night, it’s all shiny and slippery” in reference to the ‘beanbag balancing on head’ race.  So just how competitive should children be? (Hint: Probably not as competitive as that!)  And more importantly, how good is it for them?

Well, it’s important first off to acknowledge that, in young children at least, no difference exists between girls and boys when it comes to competition.  In fact, the idea that boys are more competitive seems to be a social issue rather than something built-in – girls attending single sex schools are exactly as competitive as boys, for example.  So we don’t need to worry about alienating half our audience at least!

The two sides of the argument seem to go something like this:

FOR

  • Competition inspires kids to do their best – rather than just be ‘good enough’
  • It helps prepare children for winning and losing
  • Life is made up of competition, children should be prepared
  • It is normal for children to judge themselves against others

AGAINST

  • Competition only allows for one winner – everyone else will be disappointed and stop trying
  • There are already enough opportunities in life for children to lose, why create more
  • Winning doesn’t build character, it just allows a child to gloat for a while
  • Competition leads to children dismissing losers (however hard they tried)

So, who is right?

Are we creating a generation of children that won’t be able to deal with not getting the first job they apply for, or should be we worried about creating a ‘win-at-all costs’ generation of unhelpful and unruly individuals?

The answer seems to depend who you talk to you of course, but in my opinion is has to be about balance.  Playing competitively and trying to win are completely different from ignoring effort and bragging.  I’m a very competitive person, I always try to win, but I don’t have to win.  I do actually enjoy taking part and if someone is better than me and they win then all credit to them, they were better after all.  Now, I don’t want to claim to be perfect but I would hope that my children approach competition in this ‘healthy’ way.

I think that competitive team sports (or other, non-sport activity of course) in particular are fantastic for children – the skills of working in a team and having people rely (while you rely on others!) are such important skills that children need to learn.  I’m not convinced these skills can be learned as effectively in the non-competitive world we sometimes create for our children.  It’s how to encourage the positive bits of competition, without all that bragging and making people upset.  Let us know how you manage it (or avoid it) in the comments.

About the author: Matt Stanford

Matt Stanford
Matt has been working in education for 10 years, teaching science to all ages from preschool to degree. Before he became a teacher he studied chemistry at Masters level and completed his PhD at The University of Warwick. It was during his time at university that he got involved in outreach work in local primary schools and found his passion for inspiring learning.

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