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Mastery & Cooperation: Helping Kids Grow Through Competition

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A number of years ago, when imparting life advice to a group of young people ‒ then United States President, Barack Obama said, “When you all have kids, it’s important to let them win.” Then he added with a smile, “Until they’re a year old, at which point you can start winning again.”

Competition and winning are a key part of everyday life. I [Roshan] have two very competitive kids. They even fight about who can finish their food faster and who can fall asleep faster.

But is competition toxic and bad for kids? Or is it a necessary part of life?

This article is part of a series of articles that discuss a recent study conducted by the Leaderonomics Research team to understand parenting in Asia and leadership development amongst children.

In this article, we’ll be talking about the importance of identifying the motivations of our child, and look at how competition may be a powerful – but also potentially harmful – exposure to our children if not carefully introduced.

Question: What motivates your child and why do you think that is?

When posed this question, “success / to be successful” or a specific type of success was mentioned by 19 per cent of the respondents, followed by recognition and affirmation mentioned by 15 per cent of respondents.

There was a mixture of materialistic motivators (such as money, food, rewards in general, video games, gifts and naps) as well as emotional motivators (such as love and spending time with family).

A parent elaborated in his answer:

“[My kids] are motivated by being perfect and the best, which is very annoying as they think they can be Roger Federer at age 4. They get frustrated when they are not [perfect] after 2 tennis lessons.Why? They watch the best and believe it’s easily attainable…They haven’t seen all the hard work, disappointments, reality, etc. behind the amazing runners, athletes and performers. They are motivated and energised as well when they feel they are helping to solve the world’s problems.

Last night at bedtime, one of them described a machine he would invent which would reduce the volume of the world’s rubbish. The other child, on [her] own described how we could recycle more…and said if elected as Prime Minister, she would make plastic illegal in Malaysia. She is 5.”

When grouped by age, parents with children between the ages of 0 and 2 mentioned ‘praise’ as most motivating, followed by ‘food’ and ‘fun games / happy things’.

Respondents whose children were between the ages of 3 and 6 indicated that ‘words of affirmation’ and ‘quality time’ were the most popular motivating factors.

Overall, the majority of the type of motivation recorded had to do mainly with emotional factors, such as ‘praise’, ‘recognition’, and ‘love’.

What motivates your child? %
Success / to be successful / achievements 19
Recognition / affirmation 15
People around them (parents, friends, teachers, people of a certain personality) 8
Rewards (general statement) 7
Praises 6
Food 5
Fun 5
Love 4
Support system 4
Money / wealth 4
Quality time with parents 4
Self-satisfaction 4
Challenges 3
Interests 3
Acknowledgement 3
Seeing successful people / parents 3
Self-motivated 2
Happiness 2
Competition 2
Experiences 2
Harmonious family surroundings / environment 2
Attention 2
Sense of achievement 2
Internet / technology 2
Compliments 2
The freedom to learn things at their own pace 1
Interest in doing what they like 1
Going places they like 1
Learning new things to be a genius 1
Innovative ideas / things 1
To be morally upright 1
Encouragement 1
Sense of purpose of self and its relation to the wider communities 1
Sports and outdoors 1
Being able to stand out 1
To have a good future 1
To maintain a good life 1
Naps 1
Interesting and clear explanation 1
Enjoying herself 1
Gifts 1
Believing in oneself 1
The ability to gain better confidence and knowledge 1
When it makes me and my husband happy 1
Intrinsic and extrinsic factors 1
Someone to do the task with them 1
Kindness 1
Making an impact 1
To engage with people beyond limited scopes 1
Able to work with people 1
Happy things 1
Intrinsically motivated 1
To be perfect 1
Their passion 1
Video games 1
Fairness across the board and on all fronts 1
When they feel they are helping to solve the world’s problems 1
Curiosity 1

The reasons that were given for the mentioned motivations have been categorised into the table below:

Category Frequency %
Observations from parents* 13
Explanations / presumptions from parents** 9
Others 6
Mentioned by the children 4
Social norms*** 3
Initiated by the parents**** 4
*Answers given based on what parents can observe and not necessarily expressed by children.
**Answers made obvious that the parent is making a presumption and does not know for sure.
*** Answers were parents making an assumption that is then generalised as something that society as a whole, values, e.g. “Her friends, just like all young adults…”
****Answers that include a reward or other motivating factor introduced and encouraged by a parent.

Question: What are your thoughts on competition?

When queried on competition, three per cent of parents had a negative perception, seeing competition as unnecessary and unhealthy. Three per cent saw it as necessary and something unavoidable, whereas 59 per cent saw it as good, great, or some variation of positive.

Six per cent of respondents said that it was situational, while one per cent mentioned that competition was only good for those who won.

Most respondents mentioned that competition is not critical, and children need to understand its purpose and have proper guidance to deal with failure and pressure in a competition.

The science behind competition

A competition is an extrinsic incentive – a motivation to perform in a specific way that is based on an external source, with the hope of getting a reward at the end.

Psychologists argue that a fundamental characteristic of all extrinsic incentives is that they only work as long as the promise of an incentive is valid – without the reward in the end, the behaviour will not continue.

Boys vs. girls

Research over the years has found that competition affects people in a vast variety of ways. For example, performance in a competitive setting differs according to gender.

In a field study conducted on nine-year-old children, Gneezy and Rustichini (2002) found that when children ran alone, there was no difference in performance. In competitive environments, boys improved their performance. Not for girls.

Kleinjans (2009) studied the differences in dealing with competition based on gender and found that “women and men exhibit not only different preferences for competition but also different behaviour in competitive situations. Gender differences in taste for competition are significant and evidence suggests that they affect economic outcomes, including possibly career choices.”

Bronson and Merryman (2014), through their review of multiple studies on competition explain: “Everyone has his own personal threshold where the benefits of competing outweigh the fears. Those who focus on what they’ll win choose to compete far more. Those who focus on their odds of winning choose to compete far less.”

Competition affects people. A study by Northwestern University Professor Kirabo Jackson looked at how boys and girls react when put in a highly competitive school environment – elite schools.

Through his study, he has discovered that girls perform much better than boys in this ‘hothouse’ environment – in fact, the more elite the school, the better girls do.

However, he writes, the “boys seem to be more discouraged.” Boys who went to the most elite schools suffered in terms of their maths grades. In fact, “they would have learnt to be better in maths at a slightly easier [less elite] school.”

Why does this happen? Although boys are more confident when they first attend school, boys who fall behind their studies find it difficult to ask for help, not wanting to admit their troubles.

Girls who fall behind, generally ask for help and get it, bringing them back into the fold.

Why this difference, though? Joyce Benenson, a Harvard evolutionary biologist, explains that gender differences may be going back to the hunter-gatherer era, at least.

Men hunted in groups, therefore they were forced to form bonds with bigger groups much quicker while women tended to work in pairs, thus establishing slower, and perhaps stronger, relationships over time.

In schools, boys ‒ even at playgrounds ‒ tend to play in teams (football, basketball etc.) while girls tend to play games in pairs (and require taking turns). They dread competition with each other as it is a threat to the relationship. Thus, these pairs help each other whilst in bigger groups, most boys don’t want to be seen as weak by asking for help.

Sibling rivalry

The birth order of a child also contributes to their competitive spirit. Frank Sulloway studied brothers in Major League Baseball and found a clear connection between later born children and their competitiveness.

Sulloway found that when getting on base, younger brothers would attempt to steal twice as often as their older brothers – they took more risks and focused on the advantage of getting into scoring position.

He also observed that, because they had been forced to find multiple ways to succeed, the younger brothers had longer lasting careers (over two years longer), than their older brothers.

Looking outside baseball, Sulloway also found that younger siblings are 1.48 times more likely to participate in dangerous sports than firstborns.He explains:

“Birth order is just one of many factors that influence the ways in which this competition is expressed. By itself, competition among siblings does not cause birth-order differences in personality. But birth order is a powerful proximate (environmental) source of sibling strategies.

These strategic variations arise because birth order is correlated with differences in age, physical size, power, and status within the family. These disparities cause siblings to experience family relationships in dissimilar ways and to pursue differing ways of maximizing their parents’ investments in their welfare.” (2001)

Sibling competition is a training ground for competition in life, argue Bronson and Merryman. Siblings compete over toys, parental approval, grades, honour etc.

Between the ages of three and seven, siblings clash on average 3.5 times an hour, which adds up to ten minutes every hour arguing.

At home, first-borns are rarely second-best. They often identify with the authority of the parents and tend to be more traditional in their thinking, owning up to the role of a responsible older sibling.

Younger siblings, on the contrary, need to fight to find their own niche. And in the process, they tend to learn how to stand up to someone bigger, who knows more (or speaks better) – because of age differences.

Studies conducted by neuroscientist Ernst Fehr, found that children as young as two could play a game of collecting as many stickers as possible, competitively. Thus, he concluded that competitiveness seemed to be an innate quality, not something that was taught.

At the same time, he also noticed a difference between only children and children with siblings – the former did not know how to be competitive, because they never had to compete.

Competition and agency

Despite a certain degree of innateness, competition is also fuelled by agency. (To read about our previous article on agency, refer here: https://leaderonomics.com/personal/developing-sense-agency-children).

We define agency as the ability of people to express their own individual power, through thoughts or actions. It is the power that allows people to think for themselves and be the ones in charge of shaping their experiences.

There’s a fitting story from the reunification of East Germany with West Germany. East Germany, prior to the unification, lacked in competition, efficiency, and effectiveness. The East Germans, until that time, never had to face competition, and or consider efficiencies.

A technology company called Jenoptik, had 27,000 employees (of which 3,000 were working at the canteen). This was because it was more important to have zero unemployment in the community rather than be competitive.

When the rebuilding began with unification, they had to lay off 17,500 employees to survive.

When West and East Germans started working together, they faced many struggles. The East Germans went home after lunch – they didn’t understand the need to stay on at work for longer because they never had to.

When something broke at the factory, they did not take the initiative to fix it or report it to a supervisor – they just waited around for the supervisor to do their rounds.

These behaviours indicated low agency and contributed to low competitiveness of the company. Jenoptik was one of the few companies that were salvaged post-unification.

And it was one of the few companies that also attempted to help the community flourish – they allowed ex-employees to use empty premises to develop new technology-related start-ups. Over time, a pattern emerged – those who succeeded, i.e. became competitive and innovative, were higher in agency.

Many qualified engineers and technicians accepted lower-ranked jobs post-unification simply because they felt more comfortable doing so, and wasted away.

But others challenged themselves to learn, ultimately becoming more innovative and successful. Competition brings out our agency and grows us.

Our survey results indicate that most parents understand the hazards and benefits of competition. Despite the innate drive for competition, offering the right support system and using it as a tool for encouragement, as well as improving a child’s agency will allow children to see competition in a more positive light, and hopefully benefit from it instead of having it harm them.

Final thoughts

Although some parents view ‘competition’ as a dirty word (as it places too much pressure on kids to be their best and cause unnecessary stress for kids that don’t measure up), going the other extreme and declaring everyone a winner or avoiding competitive situations altogether is also not good.

Competition, for better or for worse, is a part of life, and can be very helpful for children as long as they have the appropriate support while going through it.

The key is to help children deal with the consequences of winning or losing a competition. Help them focus not on winning (or losing), but on cooperation and mastery.

If you encourage your child to cooperate and to focus on mastery, even if they lose a game, they still win in terms of better friendships and mastery of a game. Mastery of anything gives you tremendous amount of confidence to master other sports or challenges.

Competition also helps children learn that it is not always the brightest or most talented who are successful, but rather those that work hard and persevere.

So, don’t blame the referee when your child loses a game. Rather, spend time with them and reinforce the message that it is okay to lose. The most important thing is to keep trying and to learn from the experience.

This is the third part of a series of articles based on the Leaderonomics’ 2018 Parenting Survey. To read the other articles, click here.

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