Competition and self-esteem: Turning the tide on competition and comparison in schools

Competition and self-esteem: Turning the tide on competition and comparison in schools

It’s quite alarming how much comparison and competition is fostered in our schools and education system, how the media promotes it and how society fully embraces it. Students are graded, schools are rated and everyone is constantly tested throughout their education. Do we ever stop to think about the effect of competition on kids and their self-esteem?

You could say that competition and comparison are at the very foundation of our education system and society at large, and very few question the effect it has.

Children experience comparison at home and at school and they quickly learn to compare themselves with each other. Comparison dressed up as ‘healthy’ competition is further encouraged in the classroom and on the sports field. By the time students get to university they are needing Distinctions for all their work and feel devastated if their grades fall below this, while students with a worthy Pass hide their results in shame and disappointment – they feel uneasy about finding out what other students’ grades are in case they’ve not done as well as them.

The negative affect of competition on self-esteem and self-worth is enormous.

Competition is championed; we are told that it is good for us, that it builds character and pushes us to achieve excellence. But does it really, and at what cost? We want our children to develop a healthy self-esteem, but the impacts on self-esteem from competition can be enormous.

Prolific writer on education and parenting, Alfie Kohn, agrees, saying that, ‘Competition is to self-esteem as sugar is to teeth.’

He goes on to say, ‘Most people lose in most competitive encounters, and it's obvious why that causes self-doubt. But even winning doesn't build character; it just lets a child gloat temporarily. Studies have shown that feelings of self-worth become dependent on external sources of evaluation as a result of competition: Your value is defined by what you've done. Worse – you're a good person in proportion to the number of people you've beaten.’

In spite of the many ways we attempt to reframe competition by talking about “achieving your personal best” and “it’s not about winning, it’s how you play the game”, what we’re actually teaching our children is to look to external sources for their measure of self-worth. The notion of competing against yourself is also questionable – driving and striving creates anxiety and nervous tension, bringing with it constant self-doubt and the question, “Am I good enough?”

What we also see from adolescence and on into adulthood is that competition creates a level of unrest, stress, and a dissatisfaction that leaves us feeling more and more empty, exhausted and ultimately burnt out, not to mention the inevitable sense of somehow having failed in life. Is this what we want for our children, let alone ourselves?

As a society we have set it up to be this way and are reluctant to recognise the harm that comes with it. The choice seems to be to become either more competitively aggressive or to give up and drop out. Some turn to drugs and alcohol to relieve the tension and the growing feelings of unrest and emptiness. How often do we hear this in relation to sporting heroes – who are no longer at the top of their game?

We’re told that everyone can be a winner. But if there’s a winner there has to be a loser, and not all of us want to play this game – we yearn for another way, without the stress and strain of constantly competing and striving, and doubting whether we’re good enough. We yearn for a more natural, harmonious and sustainable way of life.

Is there a role that teachers could play to turn this mounting tide of competition and comparison around?

We could begin by valuing and celebrating the unique and worthy talents that each child brings and start to address the harm that arises from competition and comparison.

We all have something of worth to contribute. When we value equally the unique talents and qualities that each one brings – instead of fostering the separative ranking that comparison and competition engenders – our full potential can then come to light.

Our schools have an opportunity here. Could they be the first to recognise the effect of competition on kids and their self-esteem? Could they be the first to recognise that competition is not so healthy?

Could they be the first to turn the tide on competition and comparison?


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Self-worthStressCompetitionSelf-esteem

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