Donald Trump once had his own board game.
“It’s not whether you win or lose,” promised the ad, which ran in 1989, “It’s whether you win.”
It seems the US presidential candidates have taken this advice to the campaign trail. Winning is the only option.
Trump has suggested he wouldn’t concede an election loss, bucking the US tradition to lose gracefully, at least in public. Hillary Clinton called “half” of Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables,” and later apologized, but only for the “half” part.
With positions of influence (and a massive media presence), these leaders are role models for youth. We got to thinking about what kids are learning about competition, both from the election and from an increasingly cutthroat social culture.
Kids are set up to compete at almost everything. They’re graded at school, pushed to outperform each other on the sports field and pressured into vying for popularity on social media. Most benchmarks for achievement are ranking systems among peers.
“We have been raised to confuse succeeding with winning,” says Alfie Kohn, author of No Contest: A Case Against Competition.
“One can succeed at something—cooking a meal, solving a math problem—without ever trying to triumph over someone else,” he adds.
Research suggests that certain healthy competitive environments help children perform better. A race makes them run faster, a friendly game helps both teams improve a skill. But while a winner’s high offers performance incentive, there’s a risk that kids’ self-esteem can become dependent on beating others.
Fierce or negative opposition causes anxiety that makes it hard for kids to do their best. The key is to point out the difference.
If parents want to help their kids become more gracious competitors than our potential world leaders, the key is cooperation. Support and respect for little league rivals and the peers they’re meant to work with is required.
One town hall debate ended with Trump and Clinton naming something they respected about the other. That moment of civility is a learning opportunity. Teaching your child to recognize the skills of their opponents encourages mutual respect, which takes the sting out of losing and the fun out of gloating—a bully behavior that comes with a hostile contest.
Children should focus on personal goals rather than breaking down others. Whether they win or lose a game of soccer isn’t as important as developing a skill—like heading the ball or mastering a trick shot.
And parents, watch what you say on the sidelines.
Research shows that children don’t start exhibiting competitive tendencies, like sabotaging opponents to win a simple game, until the age of four. But they learn social cues from those around them even earlier.
Are you trash-talking coworkers while gunning for a promotion? Yelling at the TV when your team botches a free throw?
“If you need to beat others, your child will learn that from you,” says Kohn.
Left to their own devices, children are natural cooperators, he adds.
We’ve seen youth work together to build schools and clean water projects overseas, from the foundation up. We’ve seen them harness competition in a positive way, with teams facing off to fundraise the most for a cause.
In the right circumstances, competition is motivation for self-improvement, and even a boost to achieve a shared goal.
Our kids are tomorrow’s politicians and business leaders. The arenas they compete in—the classroom, the sports field—only get bigger. And so do the stakes they’re playing for, whether in the boardroom or on the debate stage.
You can’t avoid competition outright, but you can teach your child to achieve victories without defeating others.
Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.