Kids and competition: Why can't joy be its own reward?

Kids and competition: Why can't joy be its own reward?

I’m starting to think that the idea of “happy medium” when it comes to kids and competition is as elusive in the parenting world as a unicorn, or a tween who is great at voluntarily cleaning his/her room and bathroom.

The happy medium I currently seek is somewhere in the space between giving our kids ribbons and awards for just showing up without involving emergency personnel and the world in which every possible activity is made into a major competition pitting our kids against each other for every single activity.

I’ve heard it’s out there, but I don’t believe it to be true. I can say, however, that I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum.

I believe some competition is good and that giving awards for the sake of giving awards is not stellar, either.

Too many trophies

I wanted to demand that my kid return her bitty basketball trophy after she spent a portion of the season sitting under the basket talking with her friend while her team had possession of the ball. I was not a good athlete, but I knew enough to not sit. I’m pretty sure sitting evidences a distinct lack of athletic effort. The people running the program still awarded her a dust collector trophy, though.

I found more appropriate activities for her. Turns out, she’s not so much of a sporty kid, so band, reading and cooking are a better fit.


Wait, no. No hooray, because who knew that all these are competitive activities in our school district? They’re not just competitive, they are one small step away from being blood sports.

Must everything be a competition

Remember the Texas cheerleader mom who was offed by the mom of her rival? Yeah, I didn’t think I had to fear that in HOME EC, but, well, I may have been wrong.

The recipe for the cooking competition is due this weekend and I’m up to my elbows in yogurt possibilities for my kid’s breakfast parfait. She’s hoping to be 1 of the 5 students selected from her school so she can go cook the actual recipe against 20 other students on a Sat. morning.

My favorite part of the instructions for the cooking competition: “Keep it simple, but not too simple . . . you will have 1 ½ hours to prepare your recipe.”

People – it’s breakfast. No 11 year-old needs to spend 1 ½ hours making breakfast. If you’re trying to teach them life skills, this isn’t helping.

I’ll be lucky if she eats breakfast in college and by that, I mean grabbing something on the way out the door to class, not spending more than an hour preparing a feast fit for a king frat boy.

As for reading, the elementary school Battle of the Books included several rounds of try outs just to make the school team to compete against kids from other schools who had also read the 40 books on the list. I’ve never been in a more stressful environment than the first round of the multi-school competition. My time as a lawyer in courtrooms had nothing on this. I’m still shamed by the harsh “shushing” I got from the librarian asking the questions when I sneezed. (It was involuntary, I swear!)

As for the finals, I still have that tension headache and I remain upset that the final questions came from footnotes asking about minutia from the middle of a 400-page novel. I’m invoking my English degree here and saying that the question had nothing to do with the main characters, plot, resolution, anything important in that book. The crushed faces of those well-read but devastated fourth graders were so very sad. (And no, I’m not biased because none of them were my kid, we were there cheering on the team from another grade that advanced farther.)

Yes, there are winners and losers in competitions and in life; I fully accept that competition has benefits. It can propel kids to be their best, it can motivate , it can add excitement. A band competition motivated my kid to learn scales far more efficiently than my nagging would have.

Continuous competition, however, is too much. It can also make an activity, like reading, a sad point of defeat.

What kind of expectations are our kids taking away?

Will our kids expect awards for everything when they’re adults?

Do they expect awards for doing things like reading and cooking? I love cooking crepes for my family on a cozy Saturday morning, and curling up with a good book is a true pleasure for me. I have never received an award for either.

I think there needs to be a happy medium. Some competition, but I also think we need to help our children understand that there are benefits of doing activities in which there is no winner or loser. There can be joy and even triumph in doing something for the sole pleasure of it, without reward or even acknowledgment.

Won’t that bring the reader, chef, whomever more fulfillment in the long run, or are we just raising kids whose self-worth will come from one-upping their neighbor or how many pins they get on a recipe on Pinterest?

The real world does not offer a lot of trophies, but it does offer a lot of joys. Let’s teach our kids to strive for those, too.

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Filed under: Parenting

Tags: competition, happy medium, kids

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