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Competition: Is it Good or Bad for Kids?
Soccer Kids
Photo by Chip Griffin

Here's the scenario: Your 11-year-old son is on a soccer team where the coach believes winning and losing are not categories that should ever be discussed. He believes in complete equality, and so each child is given equal time on the field.

The team loses every single game. The kids feel horrible about themselves. They make up stupid names for their team. They pout.

Then one day, out of the blue, you get the opportunity to coach for just one game. What do you do?

That's the scenario that journalist Barry Rubin faced on his son's team. And so he coached that game, putting the good players on the right positions and keeping them in for more of the game. The team won!

He writes:

I worried that the boys who played less of the game and were given seemingly less significant positions would be resentful. But quite the opposite proved true.

With the team ahead, they were thrilled. One shouted from the sidelines something I thought showed real character: “Don’t let the good players do all the work!” Instinctively, he recognized that some players are better, but he wanted to bring everyone’s level up rather than down. I’m tempted to say he was going against what he was being taught in school.

They played harder, with a bit more pressure and a less equal share of personal glory than they’d ever done before. But after the victory, they were glowing and appreciative, amazed that they had actually won a game. Yes, winning and being allowed to give their best effort as a team was far more exciting and rewarding for them than being told they had done wonderfully by just showing up, that everyone should be treated equal as if there were no difference in talents, and that the results didn’t matter.

Suddenly, I noticed that one boy’s mother was really angry at him, claiming he hadn’t showed good sportsmanship because he was too happy over the victory. Not seeing anything that might have provoked her outrage, I wondered whether this was a suggestion that one should apologize for winning. Still, the bawling out didn’t put a damper on his big smile.

Read the rest here.

Competition is an interesting conundrum for parents. We don't want our children to feel badly about losing, and we don't want them to think that winning is all that matters. But at the same time, there is no doubt that many children are motivated to try harder if there is some sort of competition.

In the not so distant past, competition was a regular part of childhood. Every school had spelling bees and math bees. The kid who made top marks was lauded. Sunday Schools had races and contests at each picnic, and even the adults got into it. Churches had baseball teams that played against each other--and often took it very seriously! Almost everyone was involved in some sort of competition.

Today, I would say that a minority of children are. We have taken competition out of many institutions. Most churches don't have Sunday School races anymore. They don't have big baseball tournaments between rival congregations. Schools have eliminated tag and spelling bees and other contests. And why? Because we don't want children to feel badly about themselves.

My children are currently involved in a HUGE competition. I know it sounds geeky, but they do Bible quizzing with our church. Last year they had to learn all of 1 and 2 Corinthians, and they had four meets a year in our district. The top 10 made it to internationals (both my girls went). Our first quiz meet for this year (we're studying the book of John) is on Saturday. They've been studying like crazy.

Does the competition help? You betcha. Without it, they would never have the incentive to learn the material as inside out as they know it right now. When you have to compete against somebody, you have to push yourself to do your best. You discover things inside yourself that you never knew you had. You discover skills and mental prowess that were lurking there but never showed up.

My children really only compete at Bible quizzing and in music and public speaking festivals, but I do like the competition because it encourages excellence. Is it good for every child? Maybe not in huge doses, but I do think each child should be in some sort of competition at some point, because I think competition mirrors real life.

Our society is tying itself up in knots to cover up this one central fact: human beings are not equal in skill. We're equal before God, and we're equal in worth, but we are not all equally skillful. Some are smarter. Some are faster. Some are more coordinated. That is just simply fact.

Nobody wants to acknowledge this, though, because by saying someone is faster, you're simultaneously saying that most are slower. Yet is that so bad to know about yourself? I know it's difficult to accept, but I think it would be worse for a child to grow up his or her whole life and think they were above average, only to start working in university or start trying to land a job and find that they're not considered a good catch. We need to know where we have areas we have to grow in.

Not everyone will land every job. Not everyone will get into every school, get the recording contract, win that scholarship, marry the most beautiful person. Life is full of competitions everywhere, and we have to get used to dealing with it, and to pushing ourselves, where appropriate, so that we can shine.

I do think that there are some personalities that are less able to handle competition, but I warn you against labelling your child like that prematurely. I never thought my youngest daughter would do well in Bible quizzing. She hated memorizing, she was too social, and she hated anything resembling work. She didn't like competition up until that point.

I was going to discourage her from joining, but she wanted to give it a try, so I said yes, telling her not to expect to do as well as her sister did.

In her first year of quizzing, she won top rookie. She was better than her sister. And I never saw it coming.

At internationals she didn't do as well, when the competition was harder. She had to learn what it was not to be the best. But she was an excellent teammate to those who were doing well, and she encouraged them, and she didn't take it personally that she didn't meet her goals.

Competition has made her so mature, but I never would have thought in a million years that she would do as well as she has.

Perhaps it's time to bring back some form of competition again. Let's have Scripture memory contests in our churches. Let's do more spelling bees. Let's play more board games at home! Teach kids what it means to be a good winner, to try hard, and to succeed; but also teach them what it means to not get what they were hoping for, and how to be happy (or at least gracious) towards those who do.

Isn't that closer to real life than this equality charade we're trying to pull off? Or do I have it wrong? Tell me what you think for your own child, because I know each family is different!

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At 2:35 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

Great post. I think it all comes down to how we want our kids to see themselves and how we get them there. Parenting magazines are full of articles on your child's self-esteem. And we seem to think that we get there by not letting them face the truth (they may not be great at everything) or by sheltering them from bad experiences (like losing). But in our church when we baptize a baby, the parents promise to teach him about his sinful nature and need for salvation. The truth is the only way to see ourselves accurately is to see our own failings and our need for God. And to see ourselves in the light of His glory. One might think this would lead to a bad view of self (as sinners) but I don't think it does. It does lead to humility (which is a good and very neglected trait these days) but we also see ourselves as made in the image of God and as valuable because of the price He has paid for us. If our self worth is tied to some particular skill or physical trait in ourselves, that is something we can lose. But if our self-worth comes from being a child of God, that we cannot lose.


At 2:49 PM , Blogger Herding Grasshoppers said…

Hurray for competition!

I think it's good for kids too. And adults ;D Obviously there's a balance - we don't want our kids getting the message that "winning is everything", but our "politically correct" culture is more likely to be skewing the other way.

Boys seem to have competitive genes, and sports has been a great way to 'release' that, rather than squelch it. They've had winning seasons and losing seasons and they're all good lessons.

Every time we're on our way to a game we pray together -

to do our best,
to be safe,
to play fair (for our team, our opponents and our referees),
to encourage our teammates,
and to be gracious winners and gracious losers.

And to the nutso mom mentioned in the article about the soccer game... there's a big difference between rejoicing and gloating!



At 8:30 PM , Anonymous Marie-Claire Moreau said…

We had a soccer coach last year who told the kids, "Winning isn't everything, it's the ONLY thing"!

Talk about pressure!

In a nutshell, some kids thrive on competition. Other kids shrivel up and retreat. There are so many factors...

I never think young children should be forced into heated competition unless they want to. Can any of you remember being picked last for a team? Imagine being the eternal "loser" - what can that do to a child's self-esteem?

I have written a lot about my children and the benefits of competition for them. Maturing, confidence, understanding, sportsmanship, loss. Let me know if you'd like a link.

Best! Marie-Claire

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Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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