Balancing competitiveness for best results

Regardless of teachers and parents telling the competitors on Athletics Carnival day, “Just make sure you do your best”, children as young as four years of age understand the chief purpose of running in a race is to win. And there can only be one winner.

Some children turn everyday activities into a competition, especially when their siblings are involved. At home, it’s a race for the front seat when getting into the car, or the backyard game of footy that transforms into a Wallabies versus All Blacks test match. In the classroom, it’s a race to get to the front of the line or it’s a competition to see who has the highest home reader reading level.

For parents and teachers this repetitive and ongoing competition can be tiring. Especially as it generally ends in inconsequential arguments leading to further squabbles about who is the best, quickest or smartest!

Some research shows that competition is innate and necessary. Under certain conditions, competition can enhance performance and even happiness. Children, and people in general, are better off when they are confident and when they are trying to win rather than trying not to lose. It also helps if the stakes are low and the motivation is not just to win, but to achieve mastery.

However, some scholars debunk the theory that competition is inherent. Their thinking is that we are competitive because of the environment we are raised in, not because we are born with a competitive instinct. There is also a body of thought that suggests cooperation is more likely to be instinctive to children rather than competitiveness. However, it would appear that both lines of thought may be difficult to prove in terms of any trait being human nature.

So where does this competitiveness come from? Gender can play a part. Due to their makeup, boys are generally inclined to be more competitive than girls. The part of the brain responsible for emotional stimulation and an inherent competitive spirit is about a sixth bigger in boys than girls. Temperament impacts as well.

Some children are just naturally more competitive and like to be the best. If they can’t be the best, then they may choose not to compete or do an activity at all.

A child’s position in the family has an impact as well. Siblings next to each other in the family order and children in a two-child family tend to compete a little harder with each other for domination than they may do when there is a child in the middle. Children with parents who offer high-praise are also more likely to raise competitive children as siblings often compete with each other for parental approval.

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