A Dilemma: Competition and Education
The high school principal was on the phone: “I'm sorry ma'am, but we live in a competitive society; and part of our job here at school is to get your son ready to face the real world. Without tough competition we wouldn't have as many national merit scholars. The admission procedure will be stiff when your son tries to get into the best universities, and competition is harsh when it comes to landing the best-paying jobs with outstanding companies.
“We want to motivate your son to work harder in school and to be a more efficient worker in our technological society. We also feel that competition will strengthen his moral fiber, build discipline and make a strong nation. 'No pain, no gain.' Do you know what I mean, Mrs. Jones?”
“What did you say, Mrs. Jones? Your son hates school, feels like a complete failure – and is talking about suicide?”
A Fact of Life
The dilemma of competition in schools is real. It is a fact of life, yet we parents hate to see the way competition can tear our children apart emotionally. Is it any wonder that the primary task of adolescence is to achieve identity? Only twelve girls can make the basketball squad, and only five can make the first team. Only one boy is first trumpet in the band. Only one person can get the lead part in the school play. Few girls will be asked for a date by the most popular boys in school. Standardized achievement tests measure comparative ability on a curve or on a percentile rank. And by definition, half of the children in any school are below average.
Competition is inevitable. It is built into the foundations of our educational system. Yet is it any wonder that suicide is a common cause of death among adolescents?
At times we parents decry the evils of competition. Yet we put subtle pressure on our children to not only do well, but also to do better than the neighbors' children. We don't care if Johnnie ran the mile in six minutes in gym class. Our first question is, “Did you win?”
Parents are putting more pressure on teachers to assign more homework. We fear that teachers in other schools are giving tougher assignments, and thus their children will beat ours in the college entrance exams.
The dilemma of competition is that we want our children to be the best, but we want to shelter them from the agony of failure.
Some Bad Results
Competition can breed a shallow sense of superiority for the few who do well in school work, athletics or music. Shallow, because the children soon learn that their sense of self-worth is based merely on how well they perform.
Competition more often breeds a deep sense of inferiority. Many children give up rather than compete.
Competition also tends to become a substitute motivation for real achievement. Understanding the concepts of history or algebra is not nearly as important to the child as doing well on an exam. Some teachers pride themselves in really preparing the kids for the exam. They give quizzes all the time. They teach kids how to learn dates and places using all kinds of memory tricks. But the students don't have fun playing with numbers or feel the excitement of understanding historical concepts which help to explain present problems. Often the only thing the students really learn is that math and history are boring subjects. They may do well on exams, but hate learning. While competition may be unavoidable, it is usually anti-educational and often psychologically dangerous.
The Bible gives us valuable guidelines for helping our children face the dangers of competition. Our chief purpose in life is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. We are to become all that God intends us to become for his glory. Our standards of achievement are not competitive. The Bible doesn't tell us to become spiritually mature faster than other people. God has personal standards for each of us, and our first priority is not to beat others but to know that we are pleasing God. While competition may be important to our neighbors and to some teachers at school, it should comfort and encourage us to know that God is not comparing us to each other.
The Apostle Paul tells us that we are parts of one body if we belong to the family of God. Some of the parts have more beauty and more innate skill, but no one part of the body is more important than another. It would be good for parents to teach this to their children.
God made us just the way we are. He made us that way on purpose, because he wanted us to be the particular way we are. While not every member of the body is the brains or the muscle or the beautiful eyes, every member is important. Competition within the body must be replaced with cooperation.
Parents often worry that they are not putting enough pressure on their children. They may feel their children have much more ability than they are using, and they don't want the God-given talents to be wasted. Yet more often parents probably put too much pressure to compete on their children and harm them with unrealistic expectations.
As our children walk out the door to go to school in the morning, don't pressure them to be the best in school. Remind them that Jesus is with them all day long. He understands their discouragements and can help. Encourage them to see the handwork of the Lord of creation as they dissect the frog or study history. Tell them to keep an eye out for a friend who may be discouraged, or for a kid who is not popular and needs a special friend.
Help your children to see the discouragements of life as part of God's plan to lead us to trust him more and to grow toward maturity in him. We don't have to play the competition game.