Competition: Not the Best Strategy for Children

A talk given by our team member Kesang Menezes at the S.Manjubhashini Memorial Seminar 2017 on 9th December at Bala Mandir Research Foundation, Chennai


When I was invited to speak at this forum, I was delighted as this topic is very dear to my heart. More than opposing competition, I would rather say that I have huge faith in what a non-competitive environment does for a child. I first got this awareness when I put my daughter in a Montessori School. With no tests, exams or grading and evaluation of any kind I got the opportunity to observe at close quarters and marvel at how children thrive in a non-competitive environment. At first I would argue and question the principal and teachers there about how important tests and marks are, but they made me understand how damaging competition is to the process of learning. I got an opportunity to see not only my own children but also all their friends develop in amazing ways, because they were never compared or made to compete with each other. I got to experience a classroom atmosphere where children were passionately engaged in their work and at the same time they could admire and be inspired by another child's work. These first-hand observations gave me a great deal of personal conviction on why competition plays no role in developing a child. Backed by my own convictions I started finding out more on the subject, and today I would now like to share with you some facts which have been widely researched and proven. 

Today my presentation will be structured around 4 questions:  

 Why do we hold onto competition? What are our beliefs about

 What do we want for our children? What is our vision for education and parenting?

 Are we achieving the goals we want for our children through competition?

 If not, what are the alternatives?  


      Let’s start with a small exercise for which I need about ten volunteers. I am giving you each a balloon and toothpick. When I say “start” the game begins. When I say “stop”, whoever has a balloon in their hand is a winner. 

    So we have x number left with the balloons. They are the winners. But I would like to bring your attention back to my instructions. I said whoever is holding a balloon at the end is a winner. I did not say that we have to burst another person’s balloon to become a winner nor did I say that there can only be one winner. This is something you all assumed because we are all conditioned this way. We think that for me to win, to succeed, others must lose. Is this necessary?  If all of you had just stayed with your balloons you would all have been winners. Similarly, in life, don’t you think it's possible for every person to succeed in their own way, by doing what they are good at and enjoy? 

We did this exercise to bring out how deeply the idea of competition has seeped into our thinking and how difficult it is for us to let go of it. 

Let us look at this question - Why do we hold on to competition? What are our beliefs about it? 

We hear so many negative things about competition. How much stress, insecurity and depression it causes. Yet as a society we are unable to move away from it. This must be because deep inside we believe there is some value to competition. That’s why we hold on to it. Can any of you share your thoughts on this? What is the benefit we are seeing in competition? 

These are the many of the beliefs we have about competition: 

We are convinced that - 

1.   This is the only or best way to motivate the child. 

2.   If we do not offer rewards or make the child compete he will not want to do anything. 

3.   Competition promotes excellence. It brings out the best in children.  

4.   Competition has value if it is done in a healthy way. 


But are these beliefs really true? Today we are going to look at the validity of these beliefs. 

To understand this further, let us look at the second question I have raised: 

What do we want for our children? What is our vision for education and parenting? 

In our workshops a question we often ask parents is – What are the qualities you would want to see in your child as an adult? 

Consistently parents come up responses these responses - We want our children to be 



 Have good self-esteem 

 Be comfortable with who they are 

Be balanced 

Able to resist to pressure from others 

Able to handle stress 

Be self-disciplined 


When we talk to educators we get the same answers. This is what they want for their students.


So, if these are the qualities we want in children, the question is: Does competition help or hinder in building these qualities. Does a competitive environment make most children confident and self-motivated? Does it build good self-esteem? Does it make children more balanced or compassionate? 

To answer this question let us look at the pioneering work of Alfie Kohn, In his book- No contest - A case against competition- he has reviewed hundreds of studies on competition done over the past 30-40 years and conducted many experiments of his own. 

One of the experiments which was conducted across many different groups is this: 

Two groups of people are given a task- maybe solving a puzzle or a problem. One group is asked to compete and told there would be a winner. The other group was simply asked to do the task without competition being mentioned. And can you guess in which group was the quality of work much better? 

Surprisingly, across all the studies- across different ages, genders and cultures - on average the people in the competitive group do a poorer job. 

Having heard about this experiment, I would like you to turn to one person near you who you do not know. Maybe the person in front of you or behind also. And discuss for 2 minutes- Why the quality of work was better in the group which had no competition? What happened in the group which had competition? 

Would anyone like to share? 

So now we know that - competition kills excellence what about the other goals we have for our children? That was our third question- 

Are we achieving the goals we have for our children through competition? 

Let us start with what happens in the home environment.  - As soon as children can understand language we start creating competition.  With statements like - Let's see who finishes first!!  Whoever gets good marks will get a prize. Why can’t you study like your sister? 

In our parenting workshops on handling sibling rivalry we ask parents to reflect on their own childhood experiences. It’s heartbreaking to hear the pain they carry even to this day because of their parent’s mistaken belief in competition.


I was so jealous of my brother, he was always better than me 

I was told that I was no good, so I stopped trying 

I remember the day we came home with our report cards, I would be so scared, and it would hurt me so much to see the joy my parents had only for my sister's achievements 

I never won anything - not in studies or sports. 

My brother was the star in our family. Not me.


These are the wounds so many of us carry. Even the achievers have wounds


I knew my brother hated me for always being better than him 

My parents always expected me to come first. It was a huge pressure. I could not enjoy my school years. 

Till today I keep competing with my siblings.


It’s shocking to realise the harm that is caused when competition is created between children within a family- whether siblings or cousins.  Home is a place where a child first builds an image of herself, her self-esteem which can carry her confidently through life. If in their own homes children feel loved and valued only when they win medals and prizes or get good marks, what kind of inner confidence do we expect them to have as adults? Competition at home definitely does not help our children develop the qualities we want them to have and it harms relationships.  


Maybe 20-30 years ago no one could answer this question with full conviction, but today we are in a very lucky position.

We have a huge amount of research on what happens to learning and creativity when there is competition. 

From the time the child enters school he or she is reduced to a number or a label- 

3/10 student or 10/10 student 

Poor at Maths 

Weak in spelling 

Bad handwriting  

At this very critical stage when the child is just discovering who he is, instead of encouraging him to explore all his hidden talents and possibilities, the child is ends up being branded and labeled. 

Alfie Kohn brings out what consistently comes through all the studies on how competition in the classroom affects children:  

1.   Competition harms self-esteem and psychological health. The child's value is defined by what marks and prizes she achieves. Even those who do well are always anxious as they fear losing their worth if they do not keep achieving. We are all aware of how depression and suicides are on the rise among children and teenagers due to the pressures of competition. 

2.   Competition harms values and relationships- We are judged as good in relation to how many others we are better than. Over time, we subconsciously begin to view all others as threats, as obstacles to our success. There is no trust and cooperation with others, no compassion. We may even begin to use unfair means such as cheating in exams to get ahead. 

3.   Competition harms learning: This is very important. Numerous studies have shown that lose interest in the actual learning and are only focused on the end result. So yes, they are motivated; BUT not motivated to learn, they are motivated to get good marks or prizes. They are motivated to do better than others. In the end, there are only a few “winners”, but many, many others who have lost confidence and got disheartened. 

4.   And the last point here is what we have already established -the most shocking of all the findings- When there is competition the quality of work done is much poorer. Competition actually kills excellence and creativity- for the reasons we have discussed before. The focus is on getting the prize and not on doing the best job.    

These research findings may not be new to many of you. It is because of these studies that some schools have stopped exams in the early classes, and the even the CBSE board has tried to move towards a continuous assessment system. Yet with all this awareness, why are we reluctant to make the changes required? Why are some parents still demanding that exams be held? Maybe we are still looking for some further evidence … 

For this we could probably draw some learning from neuroscience. Today with brain MRI scans and various other technologies, we are actually able to see how a growing child's brain develops. 

Do you know that… Human beings are born with just 25% of their brains developed! The remaining 75% of brain development only takes place after birth.  75%!! Most of it in the first 5-7 years.And how does this development happen? The brain gets shaped by the experiences the child has with its parents and other caregivers.  

The Centre for the Developing Child, at Harvard University tells us that - Early experiences affect the development of brain architecture, which provides the foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health. 

Most of us think the brain is for learning, processing, and thinking, but the main function of the brain really is survival. And for survival, the brain seeks safety more than anything in the world!! When children don't feel safe, a stress hormone called cortisol is released in their brain and this literally kills brain cells. As we all know competition creates insecurity and stress.  

If learning, curiosity and motivation can grow only when a child feels safe, how will competition help build any of these in the child? 

So now that we have this biological fact that emotional safety is the foundation for learning to take place, we know that competition harms learning. 

Having heard this information many of you may ask- But isn't there such a thing as healthy competition? And the answer to that is NO. At least not in most of one’s formative years, whether at home or in school. 

In the formative years of life when children are developing their self-image and building their skills we should be providing them with a nurturing environment in which they can discover their own strengths at their leisure. We should in fact be doing everything we can to eliminate competition from our schools and our homes, if we truly want the wellbeing of our children. 

Is that really possible? After all we live in a competitive world. 

That was my last question: What is the alternative. What is the way forward? 

There is only one alternative: Say NO to competition - You may call me idealistic … but when we know that competition in every form is harmful and unnecessary, especially for the developing child. We must do everything to eliminate it. Most often we are reluctant to state outright that competition is bad. We instead blame the child who is demotivated, or who cheats, or develops aggression or depression or runs away or commits suicide. 

We think we have to help the child cope with the system. 

I think that's a superficial way of looking at the problem. We have to change the system. Well, we can never get rid of a monster unless we name the monster and recognise what this monster is doing to us. 

For this I have a few suggestions for each person in this room: 

1.   Make your own observation on how much motivation children have- Observe a Montessori or any other non-competitive classroom of not just small children but all ages and see how children engage with learning. Only when you see it for yourself would you believe that children do not need, bribes, gold stars or incentives to learn, because they have an inner motivation to explore and learn and develop themselves. 

2.   Speak out loud and strong about how competition harms. If each of us in this room is convinced, we can go out and convince many others. We can be the change we want to see in our society. 

3.   Campaign against all forms of evaluation and grading at least until class 8. This will give our children a chance to discover themselves. Teachers have to know how to help a student improve without reducing everything to marks. 

4.   We can educate parents on how to make the home a safe haven free of competition. Avoid comparing, pushing children to compete and making children feel they have to get good marks or prizes to earn our love and approval. 

5.   When parents ask us what to do since the world is competitive - we tell them it's up to us to give that competition power over our child or not. When we, parents give importance to high scores and achievements, we have made the child a victim of competition. When we appreciate that each child has different talents and we accept each child for who they are, we are giving the child a deep sense of confidence. This will enable them to take on the competition of the outside world with full faith in their own abilities. 

6.   When must believe that every child has a right to study in a non competitive school. 

I can imagine some of you questioning- Is this non competition an elite concept or can it be applied to all sections of society?  After all many have no choice but to go out there and compete. I would like to say that for those who do not have access to high quality education, those who are first generation learners it is even more important to study in an environment which does not reduce them to a 3/10. No child should be labeled, marked as a failure and made to lose their sense of self-worth because of the narrow way in which we test and evaluate children.  Studying and learning in an environment which nurtures every child should be a basic right. Early exposure to competition will only erode a child's abilities. When children believe in themselves their potential will unfold. Also, they will grow to be collaborative and compassionate and make the world will be a better place. 

 And finally this discussion can be summed by a quote from Alfie Kohn

Raising healthy, happy, productive children goes hand in hand with creating a better society. The first step to achieving both is recognizing that our belief in the value of competition is built on myths. There are better ways for our children — and for us — to work and play and live.


Thank you!