Dare to Promote Compassion, Not Competition

“What did you do today?”

 “Let’s see who can do this better!”

“You should try to get the highest score in the class.”

“I wonder who can be the first one to finish homework”

Sound familiar? 

Parents and teachers often use competition to motivate children to achieve, succeed and excel. While it can successfully motivate children, I think it’s worth considering what the cost of promoting competition can be.

If the goal is to beat out one or more people, the message can be that climbing over others to get to the top is what is important.

So competition implies you should not consider or even notice the issues, needs or struggles of others. It might imply that others are more like obstacles to overcome than real people who might also be struggling and striving to achieve.

Many years ago I was a teacher in an elementary school on a military base.

Most of the students in my class had at least one parent who had been deployed. Many of these kids struggled academically as well as socially, I suspect to a large extent because of the chaos and disruption in their family life situations.

Perhaps because I was eventually going to dedicate my life to promoting emotional and relational health in children, adults and families, I decided that the whole class should operate as a team. I encouraged the class that goals for tests and any other measurements should involve students encouraging one another so that the entire team could achieve better scores on tests or for whatever was being measured.

By encouraging the students to care about their fellow students and to nurture them to do better, we found that when one did better the whole class did better.

I saw a rise in compassion, encouragement and support.  

Moreover, the students felt as proud of the successes of other students as they did for themselves as individuals. In fact, they seemed to recognize those students who needed more help to succeed and willingly stepped up to offer that help and act as cheerleaders for them.

I learned lessons in my early days as a teacher that I think others would benefit from adopting. Instead of promoting competition with children, there was great benefit when focusing on helping them learn to help others.

So, while sometimes it is fun to have a little friendly competition in a family (or in a classroom), I invite you to consider how often you might be able to turn a competition into an opportunity to promote a team effort.

That team effort should include cooperation, compassion and support. “Hey kids, can you all work together to make sure everybody has their teeth brushed and PJs on and then together decide which story you all agree would be fun to listen to. In fact, think about who needs the most help and make sure you give that help so everybody can be all ready for bed with enough time to listen to one of your favorite stories.”

Maybe the old adage, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game” should be changed to, “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how much everybody cooperates to ensure that everyone succeeds.” Not as catchy, I guess, but then it’s not a competition to come up with the best saying, is it?

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Think about times in your childhood when you experienced competitions with others in your family or at school. Can you remember experiencing times of being pushed to achieve and outdo others? Did these experiences make you feel successful, confident, or pressured and perhaps like a failure if you did not meet expectations? Even if you did win in those competitions, did you feel compassionate towards those you somehow beat?
  2. Consider the messages you want to transmit to your own children about competition. When are there times for competition to provide healthy lessons about life? Certainly when kids compete on teams, the competition factor can be one that promotes character and teamwork.
  3. Are there times when you might shift from promoting competition to encouraging a spirit of nurturing others and relishing their successes instead of celebrating when defeating them in order to win?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network