As parents, we all want our children to excel in their academics and be successful in life. One of the ways to encourage children to achieve their academic goals and improve their performance is through friendly competition. But, is academic competition really healthy for kids? In this article, we will explore the pros and cons of academic competition, its impact on children’s social and psychological well-being, and how parents can support their children accordingly.
Understanding Academic Competition
Academic competition between students can take many forms. It may involve comparing performance and grades, achieving higher scores on standardized tests, or even competing for academic awards and scholarships. Some schools and educational systems encourage competition to motivate and challenge students towards personal development and improve overall performance.
Pros of Academic Competition
It is no secret that a little competition can inject excitement and motivation into any endeavor. In academics, it can lead to several benefits:
- Boosts Performance: According to a study in a Chinese school, competition can increase students’ performance in certain tasks.
- Promotes Academic Excellence: The desire to outperform one’s peers can lead to improved performance as students push themselves to learn more and succeed.
- Prepares Students for Real-World Situations: One can argue that academic competition can help students prepare for real-world competition. That includes competition for admission to professional schools and competition for promotion in workplace.
Cons of Academic Competition
While some benefits can be derived from academic competition, there are potential negative consequences that must be considered:
- Lower Self-confidence: The same study above found that students who were placed in competitive environment had lower self-evaluation, the process of assessing and reflecting on one’s own skills and strength.
- Increased Stress and Anxiety: A study published in Psychology in the Schools found that high school students placed in IB program (a highly competitive program) generally had higher stress levels than their peer in general education program.
- Unbalanced Focus: Sometimes, an obsession with competition may cause students to focus more on defeating their peers rather than their personal development.
- Relationship Strain: Excessive competition may strain friendships, causing unnecessary rifts and isolation.
- Potential for Unhealthy Behavior: In some cases, academic competition may lead to cheating or other unethical behaviors in an attempt to gain a competitive edge.
My Personal View
In my opinion, while academic competition can help a child achieve better grades and get into their dream college, it may not be beneficial in the long run. A child who only knows how to compete and outdo their peers in school may develop a values system where winning is all that matters. Having grown up in a competitive school environment myself, I’ve had friends whose sole focus was to win; nothing else mattered to them. They prioritized competition over friendship, teamwork, and enjoyment of the task. One friend even believed that cheating was justified if it meant winning the competition.
I believe this perspective is incredibly unhealthy, and pushing this kind of competitive mindset onto children does them a great disservice. The values system established during childhood often carries into adulthood, with competition becoming a central aspect of their lives. For some, a life centered around competition might be acceptable or even enjoyable. However, it’s important to recognize that competition is endless, and there will always be someone above you in any contest, regardless of your achievements. Reaching the top position in the world is an improbable goal, of course. So, parents have to ask, am I okay with my child growing up to value competition over other things in life?
How to Support Your Child in a Healthy Way
Competition is unavoidable. As parents, it’s crucial to strike a balance when it comes to academic competition and do your best to avoid the harmful effects of academic competition. Here is my list of how to encourage your child in a healthy and productive manner, based on my personal view:
- Promote Personal Growth: Encourage your child to focus on achieving personal goals and recognizing their own progress rather than merely competing with their peers.
- Don’t Compare Your Child to Others: When your child proudly shows you a test with an A, don’t congratulate your child and then say, “But, Billy got an A+”. Tell your child that you are interested only in your child only, not other kids.
- Clarify Motivation: Ask your child to do some self-reflection on what his or her source of motivation is. Does your child want to excel in school because he or she wants to be above others in the class? Or, is it because getting a good mark is intrinsically satisfying? Or, is it because he or she is genuinely interested in the subject matter?
- Teach Stress Management: Equip your child with effective stress management techniques to help them cope with academic pressures.
- Encourage Collaboration over Competition: Teach your child the importance of collaboration and working as a team, emphasizing that success isn’t solely based on individual performance. Teach your child that while in competition, only the winner wins, success collaboration on a task makes everyone in a team a winner.
- Teach Humility: Your child should understand that there will always be someone who can do things better than him or her, and that’s totally okay. Teach your child to always do his or her best, but tell them that they don’t have to be always at the top.
- Create a Supportive Environment: Encourage a healthy balance between academics, extracurricular activities, and leisure to promote overall well-being.
- Establish Healthy Communication: Keep an open line of communication with your child, allowing them to express their concerns and achievements without judgment. This will help them build confidence and self-esteem.
In conclusion, academic competition can be both helpful and harmful to children depending on how it is managed. It is essential for parents to monitor their children’s attitudes towards competition and provide guidance to ensure that they are engaging in healthy competition. With the right balance and a focus on personal growth, children can benefit from academic competition and develop essential life skills.
Richard Zhang, M.Ed., is an educator and a software developer with a Masters degree in education from University of Toronto and an immense passion for education and learning. Until the pandemic, Richard owned an award-winning learning centre in Toronto. For 15 years, he has taught and mentored hundreds of elementary, middle school, and high school students succeed in academics. He is also an app developer specializing in web and mobile application in educational and business sectors.