Back in 1986, an American minister named Robert Fulghum wrote a best-selling self-help book called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. The book was filled with entertaining essays about sharing, cleaning up, and inspiring tales of Mother Teresa. Fulghum busted some myths—for example, that merely possessing a Y chromosome gives a man the knowledge to connect jumper cables. I thought back to my kindergarten class at the Shark River Hills Elementary School, a pretty scary name for a school. What I remember most is a kid named Chuck hitting me on the head with a wooden truck.
Around the time Fulghum enjoyed his breakthrough literary hit, schools around the country began to focus on self-esteem and emotional intelligence. Who cared whether a kid could do algebra if he felt bad about himself? Who cared if a kid understood how electricity flowed through wires if he did not have a knack for the feelings of others? What was to blame for our children’s failed egos and blustery dispositions? According to many experts, it was competition. The solution: call in an exorcist and free the schools of competitive demons. No more spelling bees. No more class ranks. No more bright red slashes on test papers marking wrong answers. No more keeping score at soccer. A school in Massachusetts encouraged jumping rope—but banned the rope. Not all schools adopted all of these techniques, of course, but the trend was real.
My children are being educated in this new world. When my middle daughter was in kindergarten and playing on a soccer team, my mother made the terrible mistake of asking her the score. She replied, “Grandma, we don’t keep score. But if we did, we’re winning three to two.” You really can’t fool the kids, but you can waste their time and frustrate them.
Now, I’m not an angry, interfering Little League parent who screams at the coaches or at my child. My priority for sport is fun. But there’s a downside to the noncompetitive, pro self-esteem environment. First of all, it doesn’t make kids happier when they know their efforts are unscored, as if the game didn’t matter. Second, and more important, it robs them of the natural pleasures that come from excelling and improving.
Here are some tips for teaching your kids about healthy competition. The first two tips focus on the upside of losing. You can’t get kids excited about competing if their teeth are chattering in fear.
TIP#1: Let your kids know that even you lost some games along the way. Tell them your favorite story of tripping into the swimming pool at the big match, or dropping your clarinet in the marching band competition. You may have felt bad at the moment, but you learned valuable lessons, right?
TIP #2: Deal with the sore loser syndrome. How? Laugh. Before a game or match, tell each kid he must show up with a joke—to be told after the competition is over. Who gets to tell his joke after the game is over? The kid who comes in last. That way the loser gets the best laugh and the “atta-boys” from everyone else.
TIP #3: Encourage your kids to try diverse activities. Let your kids experience the thrill that others get when they gear up for a spelling bee, a science fair, or a track and field meet. No one expects the spelling bee winner to also win first prize for the pole vault.
TIP #4: Borrow this idea from golfers—the handicap. It’s okay to say, “Josh, you usually win the hundred-yard dash by two strides. Let’s give everyone else a two-stride lead, and really test you!”
TIP #5: Teach kids to compete against themselves. Competition isn’t always about beating someone else to the finish line. Challenge your kids to learn Italian and then save up for a trip to Rome or to Little Italy in Boston.
Sooner or later your kids will realize they’re in a competitive world. But they don’t have to see it as “dog-eat-dog.” If you equip them with the right attitude, they’ll see it more like puppies playfully rolling over each other on the grass, trying to get a paw up on the other. That’s not such a bad way to start life, is it?
© 2011 Todd G. Buchholz, author of Rush: Why You Need and Love the Rat Race
By Todd G. Buchholz for Not Just The Kitchen