Celebrating Accomplishment Without Fueling Unhealthy Competition

Competition. I’ve been thinking a lot about competition lately.

Since my children entered public school, especially public high school, I’ve been reminded how much school can be about competition. In academics and sports and clubs and social order, young people are constantly thrust into competition. Earning the highest gpa, making the team, starting in the game, getting the role, being first-chair, eating at the right table, wearing the right clothes, being asked to the dance, having enough Twitter followers and Instagram likes . . . 

The competition may culminate in high school, but it all starts pretty early. I recently had lunch at school with Griffin, who is in second grade. He and his friends were lifting their pants legs to show each other their name-brand socks. Soon, they were discussing who owns Nike Elite socks and how much they cost (around $14 a pair). Though the teachers go out of their way not to make the reading and math groupings obviously about skill level, the children know. Griffin knows he is in a reading group with the kids who go with the gifted teacher. He knows that some of the children who go to the reading specialist are in another group. Because we’ve talked about this a lot in our home, Griffin knows that someone’s true value isn’t measured by reading groups or report cards or the types of socks a child wears. But he still works hard to earn good marks on his report card and to successfully do the work in his reading and math groups, and he consistently asks for a pair of Nike Elite socks.

Though we do talk often about how life is not a competition and how our worth is not rooted in grades or paychecks or name-brand clothing or the score at the end of the game, I confess that sometimes I get sucked in too. I am really proud of my child when she scores the most goals of the game. I’m pleased when he outruns everyone else on the field. I’m proud when his dive form is better than the kid who usually out-dives him. And sometimes I’m just honestly proud of my child’s accomplishments in a healthy way. But sometimes I fall into a comparison trap and delight in my child’s being better than, smarter than, stronger than, more talented than. And I am so not pleased with this in myself. It’s ugly.

So I am trying to be more aware of this in myself. Instead of saying, “You are a better striker than _____” or “Your handstand dive was better than ____’s tonight,” I want to say, “You are running even faster this season than you did last!” or “Your form on that dive gets better each week!” I want to teach each child by example that the only person she should compare herself to is herself.

I want to encourage my children to set goals and praise them for meeting those goals. I want to encourage them to work hard to improve their own skills and then praise them for improvement. And I really want to stop comparing them to their classmates and teammates.

There will always be competition, and many healthy character-building lessons can come from competition — in the winning and the losing. Someone will be valedictorian. Some team will win the championship. Someone will win the election for class president. Someone will score the most baskets or goals or win the gold medal. But my children will learn those important lessons even when I choose not to focus on comparisons and competing.

The sense of constantly competing, of constantly trying to be better than, can be overwhelming for kids. Our attitudes and words as parents can fuel that or temper it. Unfortunately, in the past, I’ve fueled that too often. From now on, I want to temper it.

At my core, I believe each child has different strengths and talents and passions. I believe the lessons learned and character built from losing the game and not being the best are often the things that make us stronger, more resilient, more compassionate people. I believe that a child’s heart and character are far more important than his abilities and performance.

So I want to make sure those beliefs shape my attitude and spill over through my words. If I speak these truths enough, my children can withstand the competition-fueled world of school knowing their real value isn’t tied to any of that.


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