The Case Against Competition (page 2)
Reprinted from Working Mother.
When it comes to competition, we Americans typically recognize only two legitimate positions: enthusiastic support and qualified support.
The first view holds that the more we immerse our children (and ourselves) in rivalry, the better. Competition builds character and produces excellence. The second stance admits that our society has gotten carried away with the need to be Number One, that we push our kids too hard and too fast to become winners -- but insists that competition can be healthy and fun if we keep it in perspective.
I used to be in the second camp. But after five years of investigating the topic, looking at research from psychology, sociology, education and other fields. I'm now convinced that neither position is correct. Competition is bad news all right, but it's not just that we overdo it or misapply it. The trouble lies with competition itself. The best amount of competition for our children is none at all, and the very phrase "healthy competition" is actually a contradiction in terms.
That may sound extreme if not downright un-American. But some things aren't just bad because they're done to excess; some things are inherently destructive. Competition, which simply means that one person can succeed only if others fail, is one of those things. It's always unnecessary and inappropriate at school, at play and at home.
Think for a moment about the goals you have for your children. Chances are you want them to develop healthy self-esteem, to accept themselves as basically good people. You want them to become successful, to achieve the excellence of which they're capable. You want them to have loving and supportive relationships. And you want them to enjoy themselves.
These are fine goals. But competition not only isn't necessary for reaching them -- it actually undermines them.
Competition is to self-esteem as sugar is to teeth.
Most people lose in most competitive encounters, and it's obvious why that causes self-doubt. But even winning doesn't build character; it just lets a child gloat temporarily. Studies have shown that feelings of self-worth become dependent on external sources of evaluation as a result of competition: Your value is defined by what you've done. Worse -- you're a good person in proportion to the number of people you've beaten.
In a competitive culture, a child is told that it isn't enough to be good -- he must triumph over others. Success comes to be defined as victory, even though these are really two very different things. Even when the child manages to win, the whole affair, psychologically speaking, becomes a vicious circle: The more he competes, the more he needs to compete to feel good about himself.
When I made this point on the Phil Donahue Show, my objections were waved aside by the parents of a seven-year-old tennis champion named Kyle, who appeared on the program with me. Kyle had been used to winning ever since a tennis racket was put in his hands at the age of two. But at the very end of the show, someone in the audience asked him how he felt when he lost. Kyle lowered his head and in a small voice replied, "Ashamed."
This is not to say that children shouldn't learn discipline and tenacity, that they shouldn't be encouraged to succeed or even have a nodding acquaintance with failure. But none of these requires winning and losing -- that is, having to beat other children and worry about being beaten. When classrooms and playing fields are based on cooperation rather than competition, children feel better about themselves. They work with others instead of against them, and their self-esteem doesn't depend on winning a spelling bee or a Little League game.
Children succeed in spite of competition, not because of it
Most of us were raised to believe that we do our best work when we're in a race -- that without competition we would all become fat, lazy and mediocre. It's a belief that our society takes on faith. It's also false.
There is good evidence that productivity in the workplace suffers as a result of competition. The research is even more compelling in classroom settings. David Johnson, a professor of social psychology at the University of Minnesota, and his colleagues reviewed all the studies they could find on the subject from 1924 to 1980. Sixty-five of the studies found that children learn better when they work cooperatively as opposed to competitively, eight found the reverse, and 36 found no significant difference. The more complex the learning task, the worse children in a competitive environment fared.
Brandeis University psychologist Teresa Amabile was more interested in creativity. She asked 22 girls, ages seven to 11, to make "silly collages." Some competed for prizes and some didn't. Seven artists then independently rated the girls' work. It turned out that the children who were trying to win produced collages that were much less creative -- less spontaneous, complex and varied -- than the others.
One after another, researchers across the country have concluded that children do not learn better when education is transformed into a competitive struggle. Why? First, competition often makes kids anxious and that interferes with concentration. Second, competition doesn't permit them to share their talents and resources as cooperation does, so they can't learn from one another. Finally, trying to be Number One distracts them from what they're supposed to be learning. It may seem paradoxical, but when a student concentrates on the reward (an A or a gold star or a trophy), she becomes less interested in what she's doing. The result: Performance declines.
Just because forcing children to try to outdo one another is counterproductive doesn't mean they can't keep track of how they're doing. There's no problem with comparing their achievements to an objective standard (how fast they ran, how many questions they got right) or to how they did yesterday or last year. But any mother who values intellectual development for her child should realize that turning learning into a race simply doesn't work.
Competition is a recipe for hostility
By definition, not everyone can win a contest. If one child wins, another cannot. This means that each child inevitably comes to regard others as obstacles to his or her own success. Forget fractions or home runs; this is the real lesson our children learn in a competitive environment.
Competition leads children to envy winners, to dismiss losers (there's no nastier epithet in our language than "Loser!") and to be suspicious of just about everyone. Competition makes it difficult to regard others as potential friends or collaborators; even if you're not my rival today, you could be tomorrow.
This is not to say that competitors will always detest each other. But trying to outdo someone is not conducive to trust -- indeed, it would be irrational to trust someone who gains from your failure. At best, competition leads one to look at others through narrowed eyes; at worst, it invites outright aggression. Existing relationships are strained to the breaking point, while new friendships are often nipped in the bud.
Again, the research helps to explain the destructive effect of win/lose arrangements. When children compete, they are less able to take the perspective of others -- that is, to see the world from someone else's point of view. One study demonstrated conclusively that competitive children were less empathetic than others; another study showed that competitive children were less generous.
Cooperation, on the other hand, is marvelously successful at helping children to communicate effectively, to trust in others and to accept those who are different from themselves. Competition interferes with these goals and often results in outright antisocial behavior. The choice is ours: We can blame the individual children who cheat, turn violent or withdraw, or we can face the fact that competition itself is responsible for such ugliness.
Studies also show, incidentally, that competition among groups isn't any better than competition among individuals. Kids don't have to work against a common enemy in order to know the joys of camaraderie or to experience success. Real cooperation doesn't require triumphing over another group.
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