By Jeff Bowen
Years ago at my elementary school, we used to play marbles at recess. The rules were a variation on pool, and the winner took all. What made this running competition unique was that our teacher, Miss Magnusson, a towering woman of Nordic heritage, loved to play, too. She won more than her share, and kept her winnings in a large sock. At the end of the day, she made us line up to shake hands with her. She told us this was to show there were no hard feelings.
Now I realize that Miss Magnusson was watching how we interacted as we played the game. She was subtly guiding our social adjustment. Her handshake was about sportsmanship. Early on, we found that competition arouses great passions. It tempts us to think in terms of winning or losing, good versus bad and us versus them.
What is more, I learned that competitions live by rules. Too much creativity or free thinking earns penalties because it may risk unfair advantages and muddy purposes. Outdoing others is fruitless unless everyone is doing the same thing. Also, I found that cooperation is built into not just team sports, but into nearly every classroom endeavor. Nowadays this is often called project-based learning.
As high school students, we vied for grades, test scores, girls’ attentions, contest prizes and ultimately for college admission. Cooperation paid off as well. For instance, without regular help from my math-savvy girlfriend, I never could have made it through algebra.
Thinking back, I realize that the key to success in school life is figuring out when and how to compete or cooperate to reach a goal. I learned that winning and losing are not a zero-sum game, but that both can produce a positive and lasting result. Teachers and parents alike can help children realize this.
About 30 years ago, Alfie Kohn’s research provided telling insights. Cooperation, he observed, nurtures high achievement and performance, while competition among children can generate anxiety and low self-esteem. Nonetheless, we invent competitive contests for almost every activity or skill. In almost any field, Americans see competition as the ideal way to measure self-worth or success. Our cultural obsession is to win.
Kohn distinguishes between intentional and structural competition. Intentions, he says, are the real villain because they compel us to be No. 1 regardless of the psychological cost to others or ourselves. Sound familiar?
My point is that competition and cooperation are both learned, although I believe our personalities may predispose us more toward one than the other. From our earliest years on, these two motives intertwine and share a big impact on youthful attitudes and destinies.
I urge us to seek consistency. It is no small task. We teach children to compete on teams and to subordinate individual interests to those of the group, but we may contradict this by glorifying individual efforts and unique performances. Trophies may be awarded for teamwork, but scholarships are reserved for the individual. We are immensely entertained by athletic contests. We depend on grading as the best measure of academic accomplishments. However, we bemoan the displacement of learning goals and the psychological scars these features can create.
The winning record of the high school’s football team thrills us, yet the bullying that results from social competition may horrify us.
Competition and cooperation are by no means opposites; they feed one another. We can help our children gain perspective by showing them that success and failure are not truly about keeping score. Neither winning nor losing should be as important than how the game is played.