Competition and Boys

Competition and boys

So I’m a hockey mom. Yep. It’s all hockey – all the time (at least for my older son). Lately, I can see that he’ a pretty competitive guy, considering neither my husband or I try to promote competition (though I would say that both my husband and I are competitive when it comes to sports). Having said that, I was curious about the impact of competition on boys and/or how competition affects boy development. What I found was very interesting.

I found an interesting article at from an academic publication called Personality and Individual Differences titled “The Impact of Competition on Intrinsic Motivation and Creativity: Considering Gender, Gender Segregation and Gender Role Orientation” by Regina Conti, , a, Mary Ann Collinsb and Martha L. Picarielloc (Volume 31, Issue 8, December 2001, Pages 1273-1289). In their study, they had two groups of children (ages 6-10). The first group aimed to test the hypothesis that a boy’s creativity would be enhanced by compeition and a girl’s would not. The children worked on a project together – half of them competed for prizes, the other half did not. As it turns out, it showed that when children are self-segregated by gender, competition became more evident.

A second study followed which aimed to clarify the gender-segregation issue that they were surprised to find in the first study. I won’t go into the details of the study too much, but they concluded that boys had “higher levels of intrinsic motivation when competing and when segregated by gender; they also reported higher levels of extrinsic motivation, especially when segregated by gender. These findings demonstrate that gender role is an important factor in determining children’s responses to competition.”

I found another article at by Janet Daley called ”White Working Class Boys Need Structure and Competition to Succeed.” This was very interesting. I was blown away. Basically, she found (in the UK – but I’m pretty sure this could apply to the US) that white working class boys are losing the race in academics. She found that children of all ethnic minorities (boy or girl) do better at school. Boys who come from more isolated communities with little diversity do worse than those from a community with more of a cultural mix. Daley concluded that the reason “for working class boys having lost almost all interest in education is that their two chief motivations for achievement were systematically removed from the primary school curriculum: competition and a clear sense of measurable, structured accomplishment.” She attributes this as a direct result of an attempt to ensure “equality” in the classroom. In doing so, children were not referred to as winners or losers – so children didn’t have to deal with failure relative to his classmates. The result: children lost the need to create and work toward goals and teachers have lowered their expectations. Fewer rewards.

Alfie Kohn wrote “The Case Against Competition” that appeared in Working Mother in September 1987( He has identified two views. One in that the more we immerse our children in competition, the better. The other view identifies that society has gotten out-of-control with competition, but that’s it’s alright if in perspective. Then he goes on the state that he feels that neither position is correct and that the best level of competition for our children is none at all. Kohn suggests that the development of a child’s self-esteem can suffer from any amount of competition. He states, “In a competitive culture, a child is told that it isn’t enough to be good — he must triumph over others. Success comes to be defined as victory, even though these are really two very different things. Even when the child manages to win, the whole affair, psychologically speaking, becomes a vicious circle: The more he competes, the more he needs to compete to feel good about himself.”

Wow. Here’s what I think…competition has gotten a little out-of-control. Look at the crazy parents at your son’s next sporting event. Some of them are nuts! I was at a game last weekend and one of the mothers from the opposing team was shouting and screaming like her life depended on it. It’s was totally inappropriate and frankly a bad example to her child. Having said that, I think if kept in perspective, competition is healthy. I’m not an expert here, but it aids in creating goals and benchmarks for achievement. If your child has siblings, they compete with one another…what can you do, ban competition from your home? So manage it. If your child is too aggressive and competitive, talk to your child and put things in perspective. If your child is an underachiever, you might even want to introduce some healthy competition.