Healthy Competition

My wife and I had dinner with some friends last night and we were talking about (what else?) our kids and their summer activities.  Our 10-year kids both went away to overnight camps for the first time this summer, my daughter to Camp Mont Shenandoah in Virginia and their son to Camp Deerwood in New Hampshire.  Both camps are traditional,  single sex camps that emphasize the outdoors and have a long tradition of competition.  At Scout’s camp, the camp is divided into the Greens and the Buffs; at John’s, it was the Blues and the Grays.  Strong individual and team performances in all the activities over the camp session translate into team points, and one team is declared the winner at the end of the summer.  As we talked, we realized that the day camps that our other kids attended also encouraged competition between campers (including awards like Junior Camp Female Athlete of the Year and a Golden Arrow for the top archer).

So here’s the question:  Why has healthy competition been banned from most public schools?

Competition is fundamental.  It is unavoidable.  It is a great teacher.  And yet as far as I can tell, our public schools do everything they can to minimize open competition.  Here are a few examples I have noticed over the past few years:

  • Our elementary school has a track and field day where no ribbons are awarded to the fastest runners, the longest jumpers, or the farthest throwers.
  • Our high school eliminated superlatives from its yearbook because it didn’t want anybody’s feelings to be hurt
  • Our local paper stopped publishing the Honor Roll after receiving complaints from parents of kids who didn’t make it

Now I have not done a comprehensive survey on this issue (and would welcome your comments below!) but I think you will agree that this “shelter our kids from competition” trend has permeated parenting culture in much of the country.  I think it’s a shame and I think it’s the wrong answer.  What’s healthy about competition?

  • It teaches sportsmanship and teamwork.  All the stuff about what you learn on a team is cliche’ and absolutely true.
  • It helps build self-esteem.  Competition is the best way for a child to affirm that they are good at something; much better, in fact, than a parent’s praise.
  • It helps children learn where they’re strong and where they can improve.  As they mature, it is important for kids to have an honest understanding of their own capabilities; delusion helps nobody.
  • It prepares them for life.  The world is a competitive place, and I believe that kids should be raised to understand that.

Now obviously, competition has to be properly governed.  Kids need effective coaches to ensure fair play, teach sportsmanship, and draw the right lessons from the experience.  I am the first to acknowledge that it’s never easy to see your children lose, but properly handled, those disappointments are great “teaching moments” and we owe it to our kids to give them an honest view of their capabilities.

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2 Responses to Healthy Competition

  1. Nancy West says:

    Another advantage to allowing the competition aspect, though I would call this secondary to those you cited, is that it’s a way of organizing play. When my son was about 6, a kid his age dropped by to play some whiffle ball. My son started calling strikes and balls. The other kid’s mother said, “Oh, Tim, we don’t actually count strikes — we just keep trying.” Tim looked bewildered and asked “Then how do you know when the inning is over?” Indeed, if both kids had agreed to the traditional rules (as Tim’s friends generally do), they could have played the game on their own. Instead, they needed adults to oversee the game in order to decide for them when it was someone else’s turn to bat.

  2. John Boynton says:

    The challenge, Nancy, is that the problem you identify stems from good intentions. Too many parents do too much to make their kids’ lives easy, and that puts them at a disadvantage long term.

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