Has the win-at-all-costs approach robbed our children of the fun of learning?
“I had recently been on a cruise. It gave me an opportunity to relax, and after a long time, to enjoy the luxury of sitting all by myself to introspect. The poolside was my favourite haunt, and I was often to be found there, in a deck chair, novel in hand, taking in the sights. To be honest, I was so caught up watching the people around me that I never really made much headway with the book. A young, boisterous group of four teenagers caught my attention, the fiercest of whom was the principal subject of my interest. As it tends to be with teenagers, everything was a challenge to be won. But while the others in the group fooled around, this youngster was single-minded in his approach to even the silliest of games. He just wanted to win everything. Every activity was a chance to prove himself and reinforce his position. He sulked if he lost and the pent-up frustration served as fuel for his next attempt. This got me thinking of the students I work with every day, especially those who are always locked in a head-to-head combat with their classmates. What is it about competition, and why is it so important to some, I thought. Competition, as I understand, challenges you to do better — to become the best. Challenges inspire us to perform beyond our limits. Competition exists in every field, and believe it or not, can actually be good. But unfortunately, in our highly competitive society, it has become synonymous with winning — winning at all costs.
Somehow, we adults are responsible for it. Our unrealistic expectations trigger the negative aspects of competition. We all know the sad stories of aggressive parents who drive their children mercilessly to win. We have lost all perspective regarding what is important for our children. We teach them some really harmful things. We pressurise them to win. The win-at-all-costs attitude has robbed our children of the fun of learning. It has prompted widespread cheating, inflated egos, bad sportsmanship, personal attacks and virtual burnout.
Many parents have difficulty knowing where to draw the line between developing their child’s competitive spirit and ability, and their own desire to have their child win. Some are so enthusiastic about winning to the point of being disappointed and even upset or angry when their child does not perform to their expectation, be it in studies or sport. Such parents are unaware of the negative impact that their attitude can have on their child’s ability to succeed and, therefore, win. I remember a case where a top-scoring ninth standard student was brought for counselling because he left his answer sheets blank in the final examination. On probing a little, I found that the mother had threatened to commit suicide if he secured less than 95 per cent marks! Research indicates that such a mindset causes the child to worry, as he has to deal with the desire to please the parent and his own perspective on competition.
In our result-oriented culture, it is not easy for a child to report bad news to an overly competitive parent. I have known children lying and reporting false, good results in order to avoid disappointing a parent. After all, parents are the people children want to please the most!
There are two faces of competitive behaviour — one is benign, and another hostile. So what can we, as concerned adults/parents, do to encourage the good aspects and minimise or eliminate the negative ones? Remember, what children learn at home about values and personal behaviour will be carried throughout life and into adulthood.
Here are some strategies:
Refrain from asking questions such as ‘What percentage will you get? Are you going to score better than your friend?’ These can be threatening as the child understands their evaluative nature.
Primarily, we must teach our children that they must learn to compete with self, and not with just another person — that competition means hard work, determination and dedication. We must impress on them that being a real winner involves more than just scoring well. We must separate the act of competition from the result. Ask yourself, will we be proud of them if they compete well but do not get the desired result? Will we love them just as well? If the answers are all ‘yes’, we will raise competitive winners. Competition does have its place in our community. Every child is an instinctive achiever. There is an innate urge to improve, to do better. It can be a tool for teaching. The desire to win, to be the best, is a strong motivator and keeps us from becoming lethargic and stagnating. But we must allow our children to develop a competitive spirit instead of influencing the process. Remember, for most kids, unlike adults, competition is a process, not a matter of do-or-die victory.
The writer is a Remedial Educator