Competitive Kid Capital

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By: Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD

Whenever children participate in activities, including unsupervised play or organized noncompetitive activities, they acquire skills through socialization. But many activities have been transformed from environments that emphasized only personal growth and simple fun into competitive cauldrons in which only a few succeed: those who learn the skills necessary to compete and to win. I label the five lessons and skills that parents hope their children gain from participating in competitive activities “competitive kid capital.”

Internalizing the importance of winning

Competitive children’s activities reinforce winning, often at the expense of anything else, by awarding trophies and other prizes. One parent told me, “I think it’s important for him to understand that (being competitive) is not going to just apply here, it’s going to apply for the rest of his life. It’s going to apply when he keeps growing up and he’s playing sports, when he’s competing for school admissions, for a job, for the next whatever.”

Bouncing back from a loss to win in the future

This skill involves perseverance and focus; the emphasis is on how to bounce back from a loss to win the next time. A mom explained, “The winning and losing is phenomenal. I wish it was something that I learned because life is really bumpy. You’re not going to win all the time and you have to be able to reach inside and come back. Come back and start fresh and they are able to. I’m not saying he doesn’t cry once in a while. But it’s really such a fantastic skill.”

Learning how to perform within time limits

There are time limits for games, tournaments, and routines, and the competition schedule is also demanding, cramming many events into a weekend or short week. On top of that children need to learn how to manage their own schedules, which they will likely have to do someday. One boy revealed how busy his life is when he told me what soccer teaches him: “Dodging everything—like when we have to catch a train, and there are only a few more minutes, we have to run and dodge everyone. So, soccer teaches that.”

Learning how to succeed in stressful situations

Children also learn how to perform and compete in environments that require adaptation. These environments may be different than anticipated in preparations, but competitors, and especially winners, learn how to adapt. This mom of a fourth-grader links this to performing well on standardized tests: “I mean to see those large tournaments, in the convention centers, I know it is hard. I did that to take the bar exam, and the LSAT I took for law school. You do that in a large setting, but some people are thrown by that, just by being in such a setting.”

Being able to perform under the gaze of others

In this competitive environment children’s performances are judged and assessed in a public setting by strangers. This dance mom explains: “The fact that it is not easy to get up on a stage and perform in front of hundreds or thousands of people, strangers, and to know that you’re being judged besides, definitely gives you a level of self-confidence that can be taken to other areas so again if she has to be judged by a teacher or when she’s applying for a job she’ll have more of that confidence, which helps you focus.”
Parents want to ensure they are giving their children every possible opportunity to succeed in the future in an often unpredictable world by encouraging them to acquire and stockpile competitive kid capital by participation in competitive after-school activities.

Dr. Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD

Dr. Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD

Writer and Sociologist at Hilary Levey Friedman
Author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. With degrees from Harvard, Princeton, and Cambridge Dr. Levey Friedman currently serves as an adviser on the National Council on Youth Sports Safety and as Book Review Editor at Brain, Child Magazine.
Dr. Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD

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