Isn't healthy competition good for children?
Updated: Jul 18, 2020
Children at Sahaj in their authenticity have taught me that human beings prefer to draw from the collective intelligence of the community, work in cooperation instinctively. I have observed children collaborate for building a house, climbing a wall or a tree, painting a house, cleaning the pond, making a volcano are some of the incidents.
The same children can be competitive when it comes to trying to win a race or board games or a game of hide and seek. And each child is different. While on one hand, Raedita and Cosimo collaborate to make their brick house, Raedita does compete to win a race.
But, Cosimo doesn’t. He has till now not exhibited the personality trait to compete. Even while playing a competitive game, he is more inclined towards enjoying running rather than winning, unperturbed if he loses a game; but Raedita likes to compete when it comes to playing games or sports.
Apramaiya, 3 years old, has not developed the feeling of competitiveness yet. She is fully absorbed in being in the moment.
Mohi, 2 years old, does not engage in competition as yet, however, she does engage in comparison by demanding that she be bought the same sparkling shoes as those of Apramaiya or Raedita.
All these traits are welcome and will be nurtured and cared about at Sahaj.
Being competitive can lead to envy, narcissism and greed. However, these four children who have consciously not been conditioned by their caregivers teach us that competitive feelings are sometimes natural and unavoidable, especially in children raised in urban settings.
Our job as teachers and parents of young children is neither to support competition nor to brush off the feelings under the carpet. We could rather offer appropriate words to describe their feeling cleanly and directly. Our job is also not to promote “healthy competition”, but, to support children when the feeling of competition or comparison arises among themselves.
Feeling competitive allows us to acknowledge what we want and this is the window to understand who we are, as people. Supporting children to navigate the world with their own inner strengths and personality traits is very important.
If Sahaj offers a non-competitive space, how will children adjust to the real world?
Unfortunately, we have been fed with the prophecy that the real world is very competitive and hence we need to prepare our children, perhaps, from birth for the real world.
By the term, “real world” most adults mean adult world. What most of us forget that childhood is not time for the preparation of adult world. The present world of children is the real world.
What we also forget is that the so-called real world is also not always based on competition. The management organization trends are increasingly shifting towards building collaborative work cultures. Many young entrepreneurs, NGOs and even big corporates are consciously nurturing collaborative work environments. There are mainstream business organizations such as Goldman Sachs, British Petroleum and Linux who seek to attract cooperative people and discourage highly competitive and individualistic people*.
Some of you might be surprised to know that besides being the co-founder at Sahaj, I am also the director of our boutique resort in Udaipur. When the resort commenced business operations in 2017, we decided, as a policy, not to award ‘employee of the month’ prize as we have had immense trust that all our staff members would work towards the best of their capacity.
In our hearts, it felt unfair to award the prize to one person that would boost his or her pride and shift the focus of all employees from the company’s vision of offering intimate service to our guests to pleasing the departmental heads to win the prize. We were clear that blindly following a competitive policy implemented by others in the industry will not serve the purpose of our resort. The testimonials from our guests are evidence that we have succeeded.
But, we did something else. In January 2020, while I was facilitating an employee café, we discussed the aspects that would define the work culture of our resort. Amongst many suggestions, a few people who had worked with other organizations prior to joining us suggested that we should have an “employee of the month” award to motivate our staff members to work efficiently.
“Should we have a competitive work culture or a co-operative work culture?” was a question posed to the group and the unanimous answer was in favour of a co-operative one. However, the human need for recognition was also expressed.
We collectively decided to have a “Gratitude Wall” in our staff canteen area where every small and big effort of the team members is appreciated. We also introduced a dedicated space to acknowledge the individual as well as collective efforts in our monthly open-house organizational meetings.
While many corporates and managers recognize the vital importance of teamwork, their actions and unspoken rules are designed to outshine one another. Teamwork then is relegated to the off-site training. In an environment where competition thrives, many employees stop sharing knowledge and skills and only work towards individual performances.
Any honest introspection would tell you that teamwork and competition do not go hand in hand.
When the professionals in a very “competitive” industry were offered a choice to co-create a cooperative work culture, they did choose it. Similarly, if we observe children, we might not need a degree in psychology to understand that children too, if offered a choice, will not opt for toxic competitive environment in schools and at home.
Schools create an artificial world which is contrary to basic human instinct
Intense competition is introduced by many private schools for them to charge a higher fee or to test the performance of teachers or to market themselves better. Competition is never for the benefits of children, it is often used as a need to satiate the needs of parents and teachers and school owners. The toxicity attached to competition is seldom found in genuine learning centers, or even in public schools.
In Finland, one of the best education systems in the world, teachers are not held accountable based on the test scores of their students. "There's no word for accountability in Finnish, accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted."**
While many business owners are in the process of replicating the Finnish model of education in India, they will only succeed if they are able to take some tough decisions which goes against the standard accepted policy of the Indian education structures.
Shouldn't the goal of human beings be to compete with one’s own self?
By the presence of parents and teachers who offer a loving space, children continue to evolve as human beings by improving their own skills and being the best version of themselves.
Isn’t healthy competition good?
When we use the adjective healthy to qualify competition, in my eyes the only purpose it serves is to give a good example of an oxymoron. When we compare two siblings or cousins in the name of “healthy competition”, it is a breeding ground for future family splits. Competition creates a toxic space by not only crushing the self-respect of students at the bottom of the grading structure, but also by nurturing individualistic adults who loathe in the sea of pride.
There is an obvious disconnect between accepting the individual strengths of each person and working efficiently as a team and competing against each other. We often get confused between insecurity and competition.
When competition is used to compare one’s own previous self, it can lead to wonders.
However, when competition is used to compare our grades, marks, social status, and our materialistic possession to others, it leads to disastrous consequences in multiple levels. Many of the pressing perils our society currently faces have been based on these insecurities.
The need to eliminate the toxicity associated with competition
As we stand on the crux of re-shaping a “new normal” in the post COVID era, it is imperative that we eliminate competitive environments from our schools and homes. If we wish to see our children to be independent, happy and successful, then, we need to support them to navigate the world by helping them identify their own inner strengths rather than compete with others.
Finnish writer Samuli Paronen put it in a slightly different way, "Real winners do not compete”.
* To read more about how the collaborative work culture flourishes in organizations, please be free to read the famous British organizational theorist article published in Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2009/01/four-ways-to-encourage-more-pr
**References to Finnish vocabulary extracted from-