Playing to Win

Research and insights on children, competition, and popular culture

How Do You Spell R-E-S-I-L-I-E-N-T?

National Spelling Bee highlights the importance of resilience in childhood

This year’s 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee demonstrated how competition can help teach kids resilience. Not only was this winner Arvind Mahankai’s fourth attempt at the gold trophy, but it was a repeat performance for ten out of the eleven finalists.

It’s remarkable how many times these kids try to finish in the top spot, especially considering that they must advance through local and regional events each year to even make the national tournament. For instance, third-place finisher Sriram Hathwar competed on the national stage in 2008, 2009, and 2011, but missed out in 2010 and 2012.

A common complaint heard about American youth is that they are used to excelling and being handed a trophy all the time, which conditions them to expect to win and hampers their ability to handle losing with grace. But not only do the top spellers disprove this notion, so do many of the children I met while researching Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.

In Playing to Win—where I focus on elementary school-age kids who play chess, soccer, and dance—I detail the concept of Competitive Kid Capital™, which I’ve previously defined here at Psychology Today.com. One of the five components of Competitive Kid Capital is bouncing back from a loss to win in the future, a quality that the parents I met highly value in their children. In addition, it is a quality that children will continue to rely on through the ups and downs of their adult lives.

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One mother described this to be as developing an appreciation for perseverance, hard work, and what she called “stick-to-itiveness”: “I want him [her son] to learn, probably the most useful skill I can think of, the value of hard work. . . . Things don’t always come easily and you can’t give up when things don’t come easily, and specifically sort of a stick-to-itiveness.”

This stick-to-itiveness is tested after an unsuccessful competition, like Arvind’s previous two third-place finishes in the Bee in 2011 and 2012. Another mother I met (but which could have been said by Arvind’s own mom) explained how competing in afterschool activities helps her son develop resilience: “To be able to keep going back [after losses] is tough. I’ve seen him be discouraged at a lot of these tournaments where we break even. There’re four rounds and he gets two. On a good one, we’ll get three. And I tell him, “As long as you break even, I think 50–50 is good. That’s 50 percent. That’s fair. That’s a lot more than a lot of people can do.” He might get a little discouraged, but he still wants to go. So I think it does create some kind of an ability to face defeat and put your successes into some context.”

Other Playing to Win parents expressed similar sentiments about the importance of learning about hard work and loss in childhood, highlighting the unpredictable nature of life: “The winning and losing is phenomenal. I wish it was something that I learned because life is really bumpy. You’re not going to win all the time and you have to be able to reach inside and come back. Come back and start fresh and they are able to.”

While there was only one winner at this year’s Spelling Bee, kids who make any of the televised portions of ESPN coverage often see this is a victory—though the real goal is to make it to primetime by being a finalist. Fourth-place finisher Amber Born (also in her fourth Bee appearance) started trending on Twitter because viewers appreciated her deadpan comedic humor mixed in with her spelling prowess.

Amber, Arvind, and so many competitive kids know how to handle fourth place, first place, or even fortieth place because of their experiences in tournaments in their youth. Competition not only teaches them how to be resilient and come back next time to try for first again, it can even teach them how to spell r-e-s-i-l-i-e-n-t.

 

Hilary Levey Friedman is a Harvard sociologist and expert on popular culture, competition, childhood and parenting.

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