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Kids and the Competitive Spirit: Why Some Have It and Others Pick Daisies

David M. Perry
Feb. 2, 2017

Who is better off: the child who plays to win -- or the one who wants to find the flowers on the field?

The classic children's book, "The Story of Ferdinand," was published in 1936. It tells the story of a bull who, rather than fighting, preferred to sit and smell the flowers. Written during the Spanish Civil War, the story was originally intended to be a pacifist parable, but it remains a wildly popular children's book to this day. Time recently rated it the 18th best children's book of all time. Today, parents and children no longer view it as a commentary on war, but rather through a softer lens: some people (and animals) would rather sit around and smell flowers than compete, and that's okay.

But IS it okay? And when do you call it quits on competitive activities?

Have you ever watched your children at soccer or baseball games, maybe holding hands with a friend and chatting, or picking dandelions, while the ball flies past and some other child scores? Do you have to remind your son to celebrate when his team scores, or repress the urge to shout at your daughter to run just a little faster? Or maybe your child can't stomach losing, even in the lowest-stakes environment. An uncompetitive child can be frustrating, but a hyper-competitive one , a child who becomes enraged or inconsolable when they lose at racing toy cars or the "Who can get into their PJs first" game, feels a little dangerous. When will they crack under the pressure of always having to win?

In fact, experts in child development are increasingly skeptical about the role of competition in fostering psychologically healthy and independent children. Competition is one way to motivate children, but it's not the only way. Instead, we need to think about competition as a byproduct of what really matters: motivation and participation. It's important that we take care not to mistake the ends (motivation) for the means (competition).


Competition: A Double-Edged Sword

Surprise, surprise: too much competition can be dangerous. Thurston Domina, associate professor of education policy and sociology at the University of North Carolina, recently co-authored a study that argues against turning low-stakes activities into competitions. In this study, Professor Domina looked at a "prize program" that two California high schools implemented as a way to urge lower-achieving kids to improve performance on standardized tests. The program awarded platinum- or gold-colored ID cards to the students who scored in the two highest brackets, while everyone else received white ID cards. All this program ended up doing was promoting further inequality and division among the students; it had no measurable impact on motivation whatsoever.

However, even if competition helps motivate some children, Prof. Domina worries that isn't always such good news. He told me:

"The consensus among youth/developmental psychologists is that competitiveness (or, in their words, 'performance goal orientation') is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the desire to win a competition is a powerful motivator. On the other hand, a kid who is motivated primarily by a desire to win is likely to struggle disproportionately as a result of very predictable challenges. Put simply: If all I want to do is win, I'm likely to give up after losing."


Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

If competition can be dangerous for kids BUT also help motivate them, then what do parents do? According to Alfie Kohn , author of numerous books and articles on education and testing, the key is to identify whether kids are motivated by external factors like trophies or praise -- also known as "extrinsic motivation" -- or by their own internal sense of satisfaction -- also known as "intrinsic motivation." It's the latter that's most important:

"What matters isn't how motivated people are, but how people are motivated. And intrinsic motivation is real, pervasive, and powerful. Every time a child loses herself in creating an elaborate Lego structure, or asks for markers so she can draw a dinosaur, or writes a poem just for the [heck] of it, or persists in asking 'But why?' so she can understand something more fully, we're looking at another example of intrinsic motivation."

Mr. Kohn has been writing against excess competition and testing since the '80s, when he wrote, "The Case Against Competition," which he summarized here . Thirteen books later, he's back with, " The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting ." In it, Mr. Kohn offers different ways to reframe the pressing questions asked by parents today, including the widely held belief that children should be motivated by winning, by defeating their opponents and by receiving rewards for doing so.

Kids need a good balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in their lives. For the child who wants to win solely to get the awesome 1st place trophy, they may need to work on learning how to do things just for themselves -- like reading a book to see where the story goes or building a fort to play in. On the flip side, our flower-picker might need to learn that external rewards like participation trophies or a celebratory family outing after the game -- win or lose, hit or strikeout -- also matter in life.


So, What Do You Do?

Start by asking yourself: "Does my child only get competitive when they have external pressure or can they motivate themselves ?" If the answer is both, then you're in good shape. Talk to them about motivation and participation to help them understand how they play and compete. And hey, be honest -- do YOU have a good balance yourself? Your kids will notice this.

For the more extreme child, if all they do is crave the praise and rewards from outsiders, carve out specific times in the day or week where you help them work on intrinsic motivation. Teach them to ask themselves, "What do I want to do for me?" You can even use their desire for your praise (extrinsic) to help them figure out how to be proud of their own work (intrinsic).

If your child never seems to care about outsiders, that's not great either. Like it or not, sometimes we need to be motivated to work hard to support our teammates , please our teachers or satisfy our bosses. Here's where bringing in peers -- not to pressure, but to support -- can help. Talk about how they'll feel if your child quits or just doesn't care. Building empathy is always a good plan, but you don't have to make them miserable. Shift from sports where there's a winner and a loser (extrinsic) to ones that are more individual like martial arts, gymnastics or even running -- once they're old enough.

When it comes to the kids spending the soccer game picking dandelions instead of fighting for the loose ball, just relax. Sure, they need to learn when to focus on tasks versus daydreaming, but they've found the most important thing in the world: their mind. Intrinsically motivated children will grow into people who are driven by the one thing they really can control -- themselves.

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