How can I help my child understand competition?

My favorite definition of competition is this: Striving together.

Imagine the monumental shift in how our children approach all the various ways competition is introduced into their lives if they used this definition. Perhaps the nets that have been placed under bridges at college campuses to prevent suicides could be removed. Perhaps our kids would never become groupies or idolize other human beings. Perhaps increasing their self-esteem would no longer be contingent on decreasing that of another. Perhaps receiving a trophy for showing up or even for winning would no longer be necessary for our kids to feel worthy.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that competition is a bad thing or that we should create an environment where competition does not exist. Rather, I’m suggesting that how children define and approach competition should be clarified for them. This can be done when the adults around them teach and model healthy competition. Often, adults teach and model the most destructive kind of competition because they do not have a clear working model of the difference between surface (the level of doing), and Source (the level of being). This leads to trying to use competition as way to increase one’s value as a being, by doing something on the surface. This differentiation is quite simple, yet extremely difficult for many of us to put into practice.

This difficulty is compounded by the rewards and messages our children are exposed to that support the destructive form of competition. Asking our children to think about questions such as, “Does getting an A on a test make you a better human being than the person who got a B on the test?” “Does being really good at playing a game entitle someone to be treated differently when they break rules or harm others?” “Does having a talent or expertise in a certain area mean that someone is more valuable than others in all areas?”

Adults can help children clearly differentiate between their value as a human being, and the value placed on surface achievements. One’s value as a human is equal and unchanging. The value placed on one’s surface behaviours is variable but does not affect one’s value as a being. This understanding sets the stage for engaging in healthy competition and gives kids the mental edge necessary for achieving at their highest level.

The shift from trying to beat a competitor in order to increase their value as a being, to using their competitor to try and improve their performance is often a major change when put into practice. Learning to respect their competitor as a necessary part of the improvement process is also important. When these concepts are not clearly understood, competitors can become seen as enemies. When children feel like they are competing, often their fight/flight/freeze system (Fred) will become activated because their mind perceives the competition as a threat to their survival. In unhealthy competition, the thought of failing becomes unbearable because it’s equated with losing one’s value as a human. In healthy competition, failure is seen as a necessary part of the learning and growth process. If the reason we are all here is to learn and grow, it seems clear that providing our children with a healthy definition of competition should be a primary goal.