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Kids Want to Cooperate, But We Make Them Compete

What's the harm of all the competitions imposed on kids, in and out of school?

iStock, Creative Commons, photographer unknown
I will beat you.
Source: iStock, Creative Commons, photographer unknown

A few years ago, I had the pleasure and pain of reading and reviewing (here) an interesting book by Hillary Friedman entitled Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. It describes the methods and findings of an extensive study that Friedman conducted originally as a doctoral dissertation in sociology at Princeton University.

Friedman’s Study of Why Parents Invest in Competitive Activities for Young Children

Friedman was interested in the question of why many parents, with means to do so, invest large amounts of money and time on competitive, out-of-school activities for their children. To address this question, she identified parents who were making such investments, for children of elementary school age involved in competitive chess, dance, or soccer. In all, she interviewed parents from 95 such families and in some cases also interviewed the children.

These parents were spending large sums for participation fees, coaching, and travel and spending much time carting their children to practices and events, encouraging their children to work hard at the activity, and in some cases studying the activity themselves to help their children perform well. Why were they doing this?

In short, Friedman learned that the parents believed intense competition is good preparation for adulthood. Parent after parent said that we live in a highly competitive society and success requires a competitive attitude and skills that abet competition. You must want to win, focus on winning, work hard to win, and make certain sacrifices in other realms of your life to win.

To most of the parents the realm of activity in which their children competed didn’t much matter. They did not expect their children to become professional chess players, dancers, or soccer players. The important thing to them was that the children develop a desire to win and the kind of discipline that might promote winning in any realm. This, they believed, would serve their children well in such future activities as getting into a high-ranking college, getting a high-paying job, and gaining promotions. Friedman coined the term competitive kid capital to refer to the payoff that parents anticipated from their investment.

To encourage the drive to win, many of the parents rewarded their children with material prizes for winning that went far beyond the cheap trophies and ribbons provided by the event organizers. For example, a child’s raising her rank in chess by a certain amount might result in a trip to Disneyland or an increase in allowance. Some also bribed their children to practice. Whether intentionally or not, the parents were not only reinforcing the desire to win but also teaching them that material rewards are more valuable than intrinsic interest.

In her interviews with the children, Friedman learned that they were less interested in winning than their parents were, though they did like the rewards. Many of the children said what they liked most about the competitions was the chance to make friends with children they would not have otherwise met. Some even said they felt bad if they defeated a friend, because that would mean the friend lost. Rarely did the children talk about the activity itself. In contrast, according to Friedman, none of the parents mentioned enabling their children to make friends as a reason for their investment.

The Cooperative Nature of Children and Play

I’ve spent many hundreds of hours watching kids play—as a camp lifeguard and recreation supervisor when I was a teenager, as a parent when I was a young adult, and, in more recent decades, as a researcher studying play and child development. What I have observed is that children playing naturally, without adult supervision or intervention, rarely play competitively. Even when they are playing a supposedly competitive game, they are usually far more interested in making friends, having fun, and making sure their playmates are having fun than in winning. Often, they don’t even keep score.

Consistent with my observations, anthropologists have reported that in cultures where adults don’t push competition, especially in band hunter-gatherer cultures, kids rarely if ever interact in competitive ways (for more on that, see here or here).

Real play—that is, play initiated and directed by the children themselves—requires cooperation and can be ruined by competition. Competition destroys the fun, at least for the one who is consistently losing, and when it’s not fun it’s no longer play. The most fundamental freedom in play is freedom to quit (see here), and that is a force that leads players to cooperate. If you want to continue playing, you must keep your playmates happy. Beating them in any sort of overt manner, especially if you do it repeatedly, does not keep them happy. Children know this, and if they forget, they are reminded of it when their playmates quit.

I remember well the way kids commonly played in the era when I grew up, before adults took over children’s lives. I previously described (here), as example, the way we regularly played baseball. We’d meet up in a vacant lot, no adults around. Our primary goal was to have fun, but to do that we had to make sure others—including those on the “opposing” team—were having fun. If we failed in keeping the others happy, they would quit, and the game would be over. So, there was little concern with winning. We loved to stretch our abilities, to do our best within the context of the game, to find new and often creative ways of batting and fielding, but we had little or no interest in the final score. The better players self-handicapped in ways that made the game more even and more fun for everyone.

I also remember long games of tennis in which the goal was not to win but to keep the ball going back and forth over the net as many times as possible without a miss. This required considerable skill. The better player had to hit it in a way that somewhat challenged the other (too easy is no fun) but would be possible for the other to retrieve. Sometimes we set up rules to make it more challenging, such as each shot must go to a different side of the court, or the ball can’t go higher than a certain distance above the net. The only score kept was the cooperative one—how many times, without missing, can we keep the ball going back and forth.

Of course, sometimes children on their own do compete. But usually that occurs when they are rather evenly matched, and the competition is a good-natured way of testing one another. Such competition may well be healthy, especially if it is more about doing well than about beating the other. And—I don’t want to romanticize—children sometimes get angry, even fight, even bully. They are not always nice, just as adults are not always nice. But learning how to deal with all that without an adult authority stepping in is also an important part of growing up. Siblings may be especially prone to compete and squabble at certain points in their life, but sibling rivalry is a topic beyond my essay here. Generally, however, children cooperate when adults are not in charge.

How Adults Continuously Impose Competition on Children

Sadly, when we adults take charge of children’s activities, as we do much too often in today’s world, we turn the activities into competitions. We do this regularly with recreational activities, like baseball or tennis (or chess or dance or soccer). We turn the activity from something done for fun, for intrinsic interest, for making and keeping friends, into something done for the sake of winning and perhaps material rewards and praise for doing so. This is why we find, today, that most children who start with adult-directed sports and games when young drop out well before they reach adulthood. The intrinsic joy has been sucked out of the activity. If you aren’t among the regular winners, getting praise and other rewards, you aren’t having fun. So, for the rest of your life you are a spectator, getting fat on the couch, watching rather than playing.

Perhaps even more tragically, we do this with education. Children are natural learners. They continuously explore the world around them, and they cooperate in these activities. They explore together and excitedly share their discoveries. But in school, where adults are in charge, it’s all about competition, motivated by rewards and praise for winners and demerits and shame for losers. Who can get an A, make the honor role, score in the highest percentile on a test? This destroys the fun of discovery and learning.

Just as children drop out of outdoor games when they become competitive and no longer fun, they also drop out of schooling. They usually don’t drop out in the sense of leaving and going home, because most aren’t allowed to do that (they are imprisoned at school), but they drop out mentally. Those who consistently “win” may continue on with some energy (often mixed with cynicism), not so much from real interest in what they are studying but more because they enjoy winning and the adulation that comes from it.

How, as a Society, We Overrate Competitiveness

We—maybe especially in America—think of ourselves as living in a highly competitive society. Many of us even pride ourselves in that. Some link it to a mistaken understanding of Darwinism, or free enterprise, or meritocracy, or rugged individualism. We tend to ignore the fact that all of us depend, every day, on our ability to get along well with our fellow human beings and to do that we have to be much more concerned with cooperation than with competition. We can’t constantly try to beat them. (Yes, I know, you can point to someone who is so competitive that he lies and cheats to win and can never admit to having lost, and he’s acquired lots of money and even been elected to high office and seems to have a lot of worshippers. But is that person a success or a dreadful failure?)

In my experience, the truly successful people in life—the people who are happy in their own skin, who enjoy their career and family, who are valued as friends and colleagues, who contribute more to the world than they take—are people far more oriented toward cooperation than competition. Nobody truly succeeds alone. If we succeed, we do so because others help us along the way, and they help us because they like us, and they like us because we like them and aren't trying to beat them.

Let your children play, let them cooperate, let them live the life Mother Nature intended for them, and their adulthoods will be just fine if we don’t destroy the environment they inherit. Our concern should not be with shaping our children but with doing what we can to combat climate change and the other devastations we have brought, through greed, to the earth, that truly threaten our children and grandchildren.

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