Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
CHILD: February 07, 1999
The sharp edge of competition
In bringing up children, parents tend to be ambitious to make them high achievers. There is pleading, persuasion, urging and even threat to enforce children's compliance of parental diktat. A surprisingly large proportion of the communication of parents to offspring consists of a) instructions on what to do, b) motivating children to perform by offering rewards and c) threat of punishment if performance does not reach the expected level. The strategy in operation is competition. The general belief is that competition is the only tool to make children achieve success in education and in career. This view is so widely held that questioning it is considered unrealistic, eccentric or even deviant. I would like to take a strong stand against competition as a strategy in dealing with children and put forward a different perspective for parents and teachers to consider.
Five heads are bent in prayer. All of them belong to women who are anticipating the birth of a baby. By using a para-psychological device, we can hear their whispered prayers. And what are they praying for?
First woman: God, grant me a son who will be clever and always come first in class. When he grows up, he should be rich.
Second woman: O Almighty God! Bless that my offspring will become a first ranker. He must get many medals and prizes.
Third woman: I want a son who will study in a English medium Convent School and get good marks in every weekly test, unit test, mid-term test and final exams.
Fourth woman: Dear God, give me a happy and healthy child who will bring joy to all.
Fifth Woman: Please God, grant me a son who will be good in studies, in fact, brilliant. His success route should be through public school to I.I.T. and then to Silicon Valley.
Having heard their prayers, do we identify ourselves with them? Wishing for first ranks, money, fame and success for children is surely the general rule. Only a small percentage of parents even remember to ask for the happiness per se, of the child.
So competition like charity begins at home. By the time the baby crawls to the door or lisps the first syllables of language, the parents are looking out anxiously for any first-in-the-class signs. Today's child does not have a childhood. Poverty pushes children early into adult roles. In the middle and upper classes, there is pressure on them to be achievers and performers. A young mother displays with pride, the medal her child gets in the kindergarten, treating it also as a recognition of her talent as mother. If the child does not get a similar reward in the next term, she blames herself. The statistics of ranking are not understood, generally. In each class, for one triumphant mother, there are 29 disappointed mothers.
Children in the neighbourhood constitute an important social group. A visit to the wildly gyrating "Amusement Park" (a common feature of this decade, alas) becomes an issue of intense competition among children. The extended family and the close social circle also provide interaction and the consequent competition between children. Quite often friendships are spoilt by an adult perception of a situation. Some examples follow. "The boy next door got a prize for his Science exhibit. What happened to you?"
Amita Prasher Gupta/Fotomedia
"Your cousin studies till 11 p.m. Why do you sleep early?
"I am not going to the club for the prize-giving. You did not get a prize after all!"
The sparsity of it becomes a constant point of comparison. I have heard of a case where a dark-skinned girl was scolded every day, even beaten because her cousin had a lighter skin. Examples of this type of mindless cruelty abound.
Thoughtless remarks often hurt, leaving permanent scars on a person's psyche. A potentially good relationship can be spoilt by unfavourable comparisons and sometimes life-long grudges are held.
The mind has myriad ways of learning: absorbing facts, understanding relationships, classifying information and so on. Language, from the very start, uses comparison as a method in the development of concepts.
"Father is shorter than Uncle."
"She can swim faster than her sister."
"I have the best stamp collection in my class."
Whether it be the comparative or superlative form of the adjective, it is used several times a day.
"Let me see who finishes the milk first."
"Whoever finishes the homework fast, can come with me to the shop."
The child's world of language and conceptual awareness thus expands, through comparison and contrast. Cognitive development proceeds apace. The comparison of material objects and phenomena get extended to the comparison of human beings, violating without warning the sense of uniqueness and individuality. And when comparison becomes an emotional whiplash in the hands of a powerful adult, the child's world crumbles. Can such adults be considered civilised?
Competition in School and College
Teachers often foment competition and competitive thinking assuming that such an approach leads to success. Some schools seat children in the classroom in the order of rank, changing it each month, according to test totals. It is an educationally self-defeating and child-unfriendly procedure.
One may ask how school education can be organised in the absence of competition. Ranks, marks, grades, honours lists and that first-in-the-class jackpot become focus issues, not knowledge and certainly not wisdom. Pedagogic methods have to the devised where a feeling of competitiveness is not the dominant spur to achievement. The teacher could have group rather than individual competitions. Assignments, projects, problem solving and other exercises are exciting when given to groups within the class. To prevent rivalry between individuals or groups building up, the children could be regularly regrouped.
To study, learn and act, working co-operatively is necessary among students, as well as between the teacher and student. Unrelenting competitiveness is destructive not only in the classroom, but right through life. Many great teachers have considered the aspect of fear and anxiety engendered by competition in the classroom. To quote J. Krishnamurthi "The highest function of the educator is not only to bring about academic excellence, but more important, the psychological freedom of the student himself." He continues: "competition exists only when there is comparison, and comparison does not bring about excellence." Being constantly pitted against one another, children can hardly develop excellence of spirit.
Excessive competition in examinations has led to anguish amongst students at the high school and college levels, ending in disasters of suicide and sometimes even murder. Parents, whose children thrive on competition, are often found to be pro-competition. Their attitude they feel, is vindicated, when their offspring are awarded prizes. Do they spare a thought for the non- winners? Is there excellence in the "Others" too? How often do we see that gold medalists are not necessarily nice people to know? How many first rankers have been happy, socially accepted individuals? How many college students try drugs to improve performance? (The very drugs which would disqualify Olympic athletes.)
A factor in sharpening the edge of the competitive urge could be sports. Sports today does not encourage sportsmanship. "Be a Sport" is a remark that cannot be addressed to anyone in competitive sport. "That's not cricket" is not cricket. In fact hostility towards competitors is consciously built up. Coaches train athletes to develop the "killer instinct." A hundredth of a second is the difference between fame and being forgotten forever. So, sports people are honed till they are so sharp that they cut themselves. The sports pages of our newspapers are a veritable thesaurus for war. Words like "conquest," "blitzkrieg," "surrender," "thrashed," "routed," "humiliated" "defeat," "submission," dominate the headlines. The sports field is not a playing field, but a battlefield!
Recently I met a scientist, who is in R & D at Microsoft, Seattle. He said that today the key word for successful projects was cooperation. When young people with acknowledged star status joined, they found that they could not achieve much without working with others, on a basis of friendly understanding. Working cooperatively is not just a management strategy, it has become a condition of success - an imperative.
While not actually visualising a world devoid of competition (the military fields and the market place are always there), one can safely assert that if a child is brought up in a non-competitive ambience, he is more likely to succeed even in the competitive world outside. Not reaching the top rank of the ladder does not crush him emotionally. Therefore he tends to be more successful. If he succeeds, he takes it in his stride, with a wholesome understanding of other aspirants. He does not let the anguish of comparison and competition eat into his bone marrow. Striving competitively becomes a way of thinking and leads to heavier burden on the mind, with the passing of years. Understanding and acceptance of varying talent in oneself and others should be cultivated. Cooperation with others will make for harmony within the self and in relationship with others.
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