Pros and Cons of Competition Among Kids and Teens

Pros of competition amongst kids
Illustration by JR Bee, Verywell

Whether it is a presidential race, a cross-country race, or the race to be the school valedictorian, competition is everywhere. But is it really a good thing? Is it something we should be instilling in our children?

There are mixed reviews when it comes to teaching kids about competitiveness. Some people feel exposing kids to competition teaches them real-life lessons about winning and losing. Others feel competition does more harm than good. Either way, there are pros and cons to both approaches.

Potential Benefits

  • Prepares kids for future real-life situations

  • Develops important life skills, like empathy

  • Expands comfort zone

  • Helps learn from failure

Potential Drawbacks

  • Too much unnecessary pressure

  • Leads to negative feelings

  • Destructive to self-esteem

Drawbacks and Benefits

Those who are against instilling competitiveness in kids, or even exposing them to competitions in general, believe that competition is destructive and toxic. Their fear is that it places too much pressure on kids to be the best, whether it is in a spelling bee or a soccer match. They also argue that it can cause unnecessary stress and anxiety.

Those opposed to competition believe that when children are placed in competitive settings they are often left feeling disappointed, defeated, and bad about themselves. Worse yet, they believe that it can be destructive to self-esteem, especially if they feel like they do not measure up or that they are not being recognized for their efforts.

To ward off these negative experiences, many parents remove the competitive aspect of every activity and declare everyone a winner. In other words, it’s the "everyone-gets-a-trophy" mentality.

Thurston Domina, associate professor of education policy and sociology at the University of North Carolina, also says that turning low-stakes activities into competitions is bad for kids.

Domina's research found that competitions do little to motivate kids. He observed two California high schools who gave out gold or platinum ID cards to kids who scored well on standardized tests. What he found was that the program not only had little motivation for lower-achieving students, it also increased inequality and division among students.

Proponents for Competition

Meanwhile, those who embrace competition as a fact of life believe that a little healthy competition might actually be good for kids.

Aside from preparing them for wins and losses later in their adult life, competitive activities help them develop important skills like resilience, perseverance, and tenacity. They also learn how to take turns, encourage others, and develop empathy.

What's more, many coaches feel that parenting is not just about safety and security but also about expanding a child's comfort zone. In other words, most coaches feel it is important for kids to get used to the frustration that comes from competition. And, more importantly, it helps them circumvent the desire to quit or give up when things get tough.

Although it is important for a child to know he is safe, it is also important to allow a child to experience the instability and uncertainty that comes from competitive situations.

One of the biggest mistakes parents make is protecting their kids from failure. Failure is not a bad thing. It might feel uncomfortable but it is a wonderful opportunity to learn. In fact, learning from failures cannot only motivate kids to work harder and improve a skill, but it also can help them become more capable adults that do not crumble the first time things get tough. Kids learn how to lose and still feel good about their efforts.

All in all, healthy competition can teach kids that it’s not always the best that are successful, but rather those who work hard and stick it out that are the real winners. The key is to find healthy ways for your kids to compete.

What Does Healthy Competition Look Like?

Keep in mind that competitiveness by itself is generally not a bad thing—it's how people treat competitions that make them unhealthy. In other words, if the only goal is to win and not learn anything in the process, kids are going to feel discouraged when they lose. But, if parents, coaches, and fans learn how to look at losing constructively, then kids will learn a lot more from the competitions they participate in.

According to Carol Dweck, Stanford psychologist and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, it is important the competition fosters a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset.

For instance, when kids believe that the qualities they have cannot be changed, such as being bad at math, then they have a fixed mindset. Consequently, when kids have this mindset, they believe that change is not possible and they are stuck with what they are given, such as basketball ability, intelligence, artistic talent, and so on, and that they cannot change or suddenly develop soccer skills, musical talent, or a propensity for math.

What's more, according to Dweck, kids with a fixed mindset often feel the need to prove themselves over and over again and often evaluate themselves in an all-or-nothing kind of way.

Meanwhile, the opposite of a fixed mindset is the growth mindset. Kids who have a growth mindset recognize their current skills and abilities but believe that they can change, improve or add new skills with time and effort. As a result, when kids have a growth mindset, they are more likely to approach competition understanding that if they do not do well, it is not the end of the world. They know that they can learn and improve. And, more importantly, they are willing to try.

How to Talk to Your Child About Competition

As a parent, you have the power to help your kids think positively about competition.

For starters, healthy competition helps kids see that competition isn’t just about winning and losing. Make sure your kids know that competition is really about setting a goal and then accomplishing that goal. In other words, instead of focusing on winning, focus on what he has control over such as the number of shots he takes in a basketball game or the amount of time he is willing to invest in practicing for his solo and ensemble competition. At the end of the competition, it will matter less the overall outcome and instead whether or not he accomplished what he set out to do. 

It's important for parents to be there to support their kids through the challenges. You also need to regularly reinforce the message that it is okay to lose as long as they are working hard, putting in their best effort, and learning from the experience.

In fact, some coaches indicate that the biggest lesson kids will learn from competition is that the biggest competitor is themselves. In other words, kids not only need to learn to believe in themselves and their abilities, but also discover that their identity is not tied to winning or losing but to their character in either scenario.

Here are some strategies for getting the most out of competitive situations.

Recognize Different Types of Goals

Clearly, there are some competitive situations where the primary goal is to win. While this is fine in some situations, there is also a loser. If winning is the only goal that a child is focused on, it is bound to create an unhealthy environment.

Remember, no one has control over the outcome of a game. As a result, it is better for kids to have other goals besides winning such as a goal based on personal performance. Maybe they will still lose the game, but they will see their skill level improve in some way.

Promote Personal Traits Rather Than Outcome

Whether they are playing a sport, entering a dance competition, or participating in the science olympiad, there will be times in a child's life where they must compete with others. In these situations, take the focus off of winning and instead focus on the things they can control, like their effort. Then, regardless of the outcome, help your kids see what they did well.

For instance, were they extremely focused? Did they show a lot of gritty behavior? Did they manage their time well? It's important for kids to see that success is not about winning. Then, in the future, when they do not get into the college of their choice or they do not land the job they wanted, they will be able to step back and reflect on what they did well as well as where they might try to improve. 

Remember That Failure Is Part of Success

As odd as it might sound at first, allowing a child to fail is one of the most important aspects of competition.

When a child is allowed to fail, they discover that they can recover from it, learn from it, and move on from it. Failing, or losing a competition, does not have to define them.

Unfortunately, though, many children today are afraid of failure. Maybe they are afraid others will bully them or make fun of them, or perhaps they are afraid of disappointing their parents. Whatever the reason, fear can prevent kids from trying things that are hard. When this happens, this can reduce their opportunities to grow as well as the opportunities for success.

One thing parents can do is share their experiences with failure and what they learned from it. The goal is to allow kids a chance to experience failure before they get to college. This way, when they experience challenges or failure, they will simply see it as a way of life and be able to move on in a healthy way. 

Give Your Approval Freely

Too many times parents withhold love and approval when their child does not perform up to their standards or win a competition. When this happens, the child can become panicked inside because they do not feel loved or secure. What's more, they start to believe they are not enough or that they are lacking in some way and that the parent will never value you them if they do not win.

More often than not, when this happens kids start working their tail off trying to make Mom and Dad happy. But trying to impress the parents is a dangerous course and not the slightest bit healthy. Instead, parents need to give love and approval freely and without condition. Children should always feel like they are loved unconditionally, even when they lose.

What to Do If Competition Stresses Your Kid Out

Sometimes kids are so resistant to competition that they may refuse to participate in any competitive activity. They also might fake an illness or show signs of anxiety.

While it is normal for kids to feel a little anxious before a big competition, they should not be so worried that it is impacting other areas of their life.

Whether it is a big game, a standardized test, band competition, or the state spelling bee, if the fear of competition is impacting your child you may want to dig deeper to see what’s under the surface. There could be anxiety or depression at play. Or, it could be just an unhealthy view of competition.

Overall though, most people argue against allowing an anxious child to quit an activity. Before long, quitting will become a way of life if the child never learns how to manage distress.

Instead of allowing your child to quit when anxiety rears its ugly head, try using calming techniques to help the child keep it together. It's also important to provide support and reassurance. With each stressful competitive activity the child conquers, the more mental strength and stamina they will have for competitive situations in the future. Persevering through the anxiety and the challenges that competition provides is where the real growth happens.

​A Word From Verywell

Regardless of where you stand on competition, don't forget that there are many different types of competition. And, some of them are definitely more positive than others.

To teach your kids how to be competitive in a healthy way, look for activities that have attainable goals while encouraging teamwork. And of course, look for something that is fun for your kids and going to keep them engaged. 

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