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The Value of Competition

I was sad to see that after the demise of the long-running Home Education Magazine, the publisher chose to take down the entire site, and with it the archive of years of articles that they published. I wrote for HEM for only the last two years, but I loved being able to contribute to an important voice in homeschooling. Since these articles are no longer available online, I am re-publishing mine here on my blog.

When I first became a homeschooler, I was surprised by the number of parents I met who were against allowing children to compete in any way. Activities in our public homeschool program were designed as “everyone wins” events. We hardly saw any homeschoolers at our county science fair, despite the fact that it was very welcoming to our kids. Parents were always on the lookout for cooperative games so that their children wouldn’t have to compete with each other.

Other homeschooling families I know also love to enter the science fair.

Other homeschooling families I know also love to enter the science fair.

The rare competitive homeschooler seems to be the exception: often they are homeschoolers specifically because their achievements leave little time for school. A high-level competitive gymnast seems more common amongst homeschoolers than a child who just likes the challenge of competition at any level.

In our family, however, we have an instinctive enthusiasm for competitions. It isn’t that our kids are generally high-achievers; in fact, they don’t necessarily place in competitions they enter. But we all feel the excitement and fulfillment of identifying a target, working toward it, and seeing our work alongside others who share our interests.

Science mania!

The science fair is a good example of a competitive event my children love. It is a huge payoff for project-based learning. Whereas other projects might gather dust on a shelf or become presents for Grandma, the science fair moves from independent exploration, to documenting the work, to sharing with fellow young scientists, and on to speaking with (and hopefully receiving awards from) judges.

My kids enter almost every year; they often win awards, but not always. The big payoff for them, however, is the experience as a whole. As an unschooler, I’ve become a sort of pied piper for the science fair. The first year my child entered, she was the only student in our public homeschool program who was interested. Over the years, I gushed enough about it that we’ve seen a bigger participation level, but nowhere near what I would expect for a well-managed, free, and inspiring educational event.

Shunning competition

So what’s up with avoiding competition? It turns out it’s not just homeschoolers. In “Losing is Good for You,” Ashley Merryman (New York Times) explores the phenomenon of parents shunning competition. She cites sports leagues in which all the children receive trophies, regardless of participation or performance.

“By age 4 or 5, children aren’t fooled by all the trophies,” Merryman writes. “They are surprisingly accurate in identifying who excels and who struggles. Those who are outperformed know it and give up, while those who do well feel cheated when they aren’t recognized for their accomplishments. They, too, may give up.”

When adults deny obvious differences between children, they send a confusing message. On the one hand, it’s a message of conformance: Don’t try to be different because even if we know you are, we’re going to pretend you’re not. On the other hand, it’s a message about the futility of working hard: Don’t try to improve because Johnny who didn’t even bother to come to practice is going to get the same reward as you.

Starting with the self-esteem movement in the late 1970’s, Americans altered how praise—both verbal and token-based—is given out. We wanted kids to feel good about themselves, so we started to say “good job” when our parents might have said “how could you miss such an easy pitch?” We wanted to celebrate kids who had been traditionally at the bottom, so we phased out games that would point out physical differences, competitions that would point out intellectual differences, and pretty much any situation in which a child might get the message, “you’re a loser.”

Growth mindset

The work of psychologist Carol Dweck has made waves across education in the United States, but when it came out, lots of parents and teachers looked at it and felt like they ought to say, “Well, duh!” It turns out that you can empirically prove that all this mindless cheerleading is bad for kids’ self-esteem. In a very simply designed experiment, Dweck asked kids to solve math puzzles. To half of the kids, the researchers said, “You are so smart!” To the other half, they said, “You worked so hard on that!”

Not surprisingly, the “so smart” kids suddenly had something to protect. They were so smart, and they’d better not let on when they had trouble with something. The “so smart” kids went on to perform miserably on a slightly harder task, whereas the “hard working” kids were pumped up by the researchers’ enthusiasm for their hard work, and they worked even harder and achieved more.

It’s true: in competitions, a few kids win and lots of kids lose. The thing is, in well-run competitions any kid who has a solid foundation of self-respect is not going to be fooled. When my kids and I look at the winners in a competition, we discuss whether we think the judging was fair. More often than not, my kids admit that the winners simply put in more work, had a more original idea, and did a better job of explaining what they did.

Competing for satisfaction

We love Santa Cruz Soccer, which emphasizes cooperation in competition.

We love Santa Cruz Soccer, which emphasizes cooperation in competition.

Recently I read an article about cultivating intrinsic motivation that was making the rounds amongst teachers. I noticed that the author pointed out the value of fair competition.

“Intrinsic motivation can be increased in situations where students gain satisfaction from helping their peers and also in cases where they are able to compare their own performance favorably to that of others,” writes teacher Saga Briggs.

She says “favorably,” but I would broaden that: I think that my kids gain satisfaction just from seeing where they lie in the continuum of human achievement. My daughter still plays soccer, even though she’s never been MVP. She celebrates the achievements of the great hitters on her softball team, pointing out how much they practice. My son sometimes declines to enter a competition that he judges himself unprepared for. It’s not that he has poor self-esteem—it’s that showing his work alongside the work of others who share his passions has given him a good perspective. He knows how hard he’s going to have to work to compete, and when he honestly isn’t willing to do the work, he would rather sit on the sidelines and cheer people who were.

Of course, a child who doesn’t enjoy competition shouldn’t be pushed into it. But by the same token, denying children the right to stand up and proudly declare their achievements does not bolster their self-esteem. Our kids are just as smart as we are….if not smarter. They know when people are putting them on, so if we continue the charade that kids’ achievements are all the same, we’re not doing them any favors. Yes, it’s great to celebrate all children’s abilities, but avoiding competition puts our children into a manufactured world where hard work is not acknowledged and their achievements are just another thing to gather dust up on a high shelf.


Losing is Good for You” by Ashley Merryman

25 Ways to Cultivate Intrinsic Motivation” by Saga Briggs

Posted in Culture, Homeschooling, Parenting.

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