Competition encourages the drive for excellence. Whether it’s at school, church or sports, kids need to learn to do their best. If not, they’ll regret it later in life when doors close on important opportunities.
by Peter Koehnen
There is nothing inherently wrong with competition, provided it is held in the appropriate contexts. The skills children learn through healthy competition are critical if they are to make an impact on the world for God, succeed in life and deepen their own faith.
There is a misconception that competition either damages children’s self-esteem or makes them self-absorbed and arrogant. Those problems are not the fault of the competition itself, but rather the context in which the competition is presented. Children must be taught that God does not care if we are the best, but only that we are striving to do our best.
Unfortunately, the public perception of competition has been tainted by steroid scandals, bribery and cheating. But these things are an indictment of the character of specific competitors, not of competition itself. Visit any community baseball diamond or soccer field where six-year-olds are playing on their first sports team. Those kids are experiencing the exuberance of doing their best. They are not crushed if their team loses. The snacks and oranges at the end of the game taste just as sweet.
As Christians it is our responsibility to teach children that God is pleased when we do our best at everything we do. Eric Liddell was a Scottish Olympian and Christian missionary in China. The winner of the men’s 400-metre race at the 1924 summer Olympics in Paris, his Christian values and athletic prowess were depicted in the film Chariots of Fire. About competition Liddell said, “In the dust of defeat as well as the laurels of victory there is glory to be found if one has done his best.”
Too many of our children are growing up with a sense of entitlement. They are led to believe that regardless of how much or how little effort they put into something, the results will be the same. This does not do our children justice, but instead sets them up for grave disappointment when they leave school and are expected to live independent lives.
The skills learned through competition are not limited to foot races, vocal competitions or math contests. They are transferable and necessary to most things in life. Without discipline, perseverance and determination our children won’t be ready for the real competition they will face in life, be it in university, college or the workforce. Skills fostered through healthy and appropriate competition can also help us in our mission as Christians. They can strengthen our resolve to overcome poverty, hunger and violence against the vulnerable. More than just believing in social justice, we need concrete and proven skills to achieve it.
Christians are not exempt from competition, but we do have a responsibility to teach our children that striving for a goal is noble even if it is never reached. While it is important to teach children the skills necessary for competition, it is just as important to teach them grace and humility in victory and defeat.
God has given us gifts. He wants us to develop and use those gifts to his glory. Eric Liddell said, “God made me fast and when I run I feel his pleasure.” God does not want us to hide our light under a bushel. We must teach our children to “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in Heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
The only way for children to really learn what their “light” is, is to see it in the context of others. When we are young our mothers tell us that we are the fastest runners, best singers or most talented artists in the world. Mothers tell their children they are the best at everything, and that’s OK. But it would be unhealthy if we never tested those skills against others and instead grew up complacent, believing that we really were the best at everything.
The Christian walk is fraught with challenges and setbacks. Our faith is in constant competition with doubts, temptations and false idols. As adults, it’s no longer important to us if we played the best piano solos in our recitals or if we got first place in our Grade 5 public speaking contests. The skills we developed in those competitions, however, taught us to always strive to be better ambassadors of Christ’s gospel, to not be crushed when we fall on our Christian walk, but rather to get up, be thankful for God’s grace and keep on striving. And some day may we all say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).
Peter Koehnen is a secondary school administrator in Mississauga, Ont., who has been involved with The Salvation Army for the last 20 years.
Parents these days push their children too hard. Awards, prizes and recognition are great for the winners, but can damage the self-esteem of the losers. We need to ease up and let kids be kids.
by Bruce Ivany
Why are we in such a hurry to turn children into adults? It would seem that parents are feeling great pressure to ensure that their children develop as many skills and abilities, in as short a time as possible. But to what end and at what cost?
Some of this push comes from the misguided view of parents as to what constitutes success in today’s world and the vicarious need of some parents to live their lives through their children. In his book The Hurried Child, child psychologist David Elkind writes, “The concept of child competence, which drove much of the hurrying of childhood in previous decades, is very much alive today. Parents are under more pressure than ever to overschedule their children and have them engaged in organized sports and other activities that may be age inappropriate.”
I know young people in middle school and high school who are busier than executives of corporations. Their week is programmed from beginning to end with the precision needed by the CEO of a major company. If by chance there is a break in the schedule, these young people are at a loss for what to do, and their anxiety translates into that dreaded complaint: “I’m bored.” Many children struggle with the concept of “free time” or “playtime” because so much of their time is structured.
So what is the cost of raising our children this way? Elkind states: “Today’s child has become the unwilling, unintended victim of overwhelming stress—the stress borne of rapid, bewildering social change and constantly rising expectations.”
That’s right. Many of our children are feeling stressed. Whether we intend it or not, we are setting expectations beyond what many are capable of achieving. As a result, many kids are sleep deprived and their emotional needs are not being met. They rarely sit down to a meal with their family in the same room, at the same table, without the TV on and with no one hurrying back and forth from an activity.
Competition can also damage our children’s self-esteem. In his book Hurt, Chap Clark, professor of youth, family and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, observes: “The pressure to succeed, whether in the classroom, in athletics, or in any endeavour that creates a sense of worth and accomplishment represents an elusive, never-quite-good-enough sense that [young people] wear like a cloud.” Clark suggests that their worth is measured by “the goal scored, the A grade, or a role in the school play.… In other words, it is not who they are but what they do that counts.
“Sports, music, dance, drama, and even faith-related programs are all guilty of ignoring the developmental needs of each individual young person in favour of the organization’s goals … they are only as valuable as their ability to contribute.”
In my 34 years as an educator, I have seen this played out time and again. Let’s state it plain and simple: we need to value our children for who they are, not what they do. Too many of our children find their value in their achievements. They have become “reward junkies.”
We need to encourage more than we praise. Praise is an expression of approval, recognition of what someone has done. But encouragement is the act of giving hope or support. One of the better things I did as a school principal was create means of recognizing students for their attitude and effort—something that everyone can achieve regardless of their natural talents or abilities.
Our current society tends to view “average” as a bad thing. But aren’t most of us average? We are not all genetically blessed to be smart, athletic, musical or creative. That doesn’t mean we don’t strive to become skilled or develop our talents. But we need to be realistic in our expectations of children.
I have coached sports for over 35 years. After the first few years, when I finally realized that it was my own ego behind a desire to win at all costs, I became a much better coach. I work hard with young people to help them develop their skills, to know what it takes to be a contributing member of a team and to enjoy the opportunity to participate. Unfortunately, I have come across parents who expect their child to be the next Sidney Crosby, Hayley Wickenheiser or Steve Nash.
God loves each one of us for who we are, not what we do. This is a message our children need to hear louder than anything else.
Bruce Ivany has spent 34 years as an educator in the public school system, most recently as assistant superintendent in the Abbotsford School District, B.C. He is currently working as an instructor at Trinity Western University in the School of Education.