Teach children how to compete

Published 10:31 am Saturday, October 25, 2014

by Clay Scott

We’ve lost perspective in our society when it comes to competition. We used to be civilized people. When we won, we were happy; when we lost, we were sad; but in either case it was only for a time. We had this innate understanding that such victories and defeats were a microcosm for life. Each had a value, even if we couldn’t quite explain what that value was. We knew that we were better people after each such experience. We recognized that the third- or fourth-place finisher was, in the end, better off than if he or she had not competed in the first place. The middle-of-the-pack finisher, or even the last place team, can choose to acknowledge its growth over the course of the season. We had a healthy attitude about competition because we understood that our current standing was less important than the direction we were heading.

Ironically, when you play to win, and do so with a healthy attitude, there are two ways to lose and neither has anything to do with the score. The first is to play below your potential. Even if you win the game, it is a hollow victory because your arrow is facing the wrong direction. The second, and most common, is to fail to compete in the first place. When you fail to compete, you are going neither direction. In that arena you are, quite literally, damned.

The bigger irony is that this second form of defeat, which is the more dangerous of the two, is exactly where we end up when we attempt to shield our children’s self-esteem. We become so afraid of the possibility of unhealthy attitudes about competition that we begin to treat competition as though it were evil. We stop keeping score, say things like, “everyone’s a winner,” and give trophies for participation. Instead of taking hold of the wonderful teaching opportunities, we turn up our noses at them and pat ourselves on the back for having protected our children’s fragile psyches. By sterilizing the experience we remove the potential for barbarism that comes from unhealthy attitudes, but we also remove the possibility of growth and development.

Do not misunderstand. I do not mean to imply that all things must be competitive to be valuable. I recognize that there is a time to play around without keeping score. My argument is not that all things should be competitive, only that we need to include healthy competition in the training of our children. Real athletic competition is an important piece of this. Likewise, honors classes with limited spaces play a pivotal role in promoting healthy competition in the classroom. Art shows, science fairs and musical recitals that include awards for excellence are other ways of doing this.

Competition is a principle of nature. Examples of real and appropriate competition abound including those found in social, economic, educational, political, and military fields. Trying to avoid competition is like trying to avoid gravity. It just doesn’t work. And yet so many educational practices attempt to do exactly that. Without getting too technical, two obvious examples include: “grade floors,” a minimum score given for acceptable effort; and ignoring ability when creating classes.

The best thing for us to do is to teach children how to compete. Rather than filling their heads with false senses of accomplishment, let them go through the process that will allow them to develop real confidence in themselves. Once a child has a couple of solid, meaningful victories, the kind that take diligence and perseverance, the need to worry about self-esteem is gone. That is when real character development can occur. There will likely be tears along the way, but how many transformative lessons come tear-free? The end result will be a generation of strong young men and women who know that they are capable of great things because they will have done great things.

I don’t know about you, but I am willing to pay the price of time, patience, temperance and engaged instruction to see that happen.

CLAY SCOTT is a former teacher from Southampton Academy and Franklin High School, and he was also an administrator at SA. He is the co-founder of Telios Academy and a doctoral candidate at George Washington University. He can be reached at teliosacademies@gmail.com