Sunday, May 26, 2013

Competition is a Lose-Lose

Everything with my son is a competition.

“Which is better?” “Who do you like most?” “Do you think I’ll win?” “I got more points.”

That, I suppose, is America. Americans love winners. Our heroes show us that winning is the big picture.

Former Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis used to say, “Just win, baby.” 

U.S. Army General George Patton once said, “Americans play to win at all times.” 

Look at the shirts out there: “Love to win.” “Won and done.” “Play. Win. Lunch.” And my favorite: “Every time you make a typo, the errorists win.”

But if there’s a winner, there has to be a loser. And nobody wants to be that loser.

Competition, without a doubt, causes loss and pain, stress to not make losing happen again. Even winners don’t really win in the end. As a result, life might bear little enjoyment.

So when my 9-year-old son asked which of his two drawings I liked best, I decided not to choose. I decided to shut down the competition. This time I wouldn’t give in. This time I’d win.

“If you had to choose one, though, which one would you pick as the winner?” my son insisted.

“I still wouldn’t be able to choose,” I said, “because I like both drawings exactly equally.”

“Why not do an eenie-meenie-miney-moe to choose which one wins?”

“Because I don’t want one to win. I want them both to just be.”

“Well,” he kept trying, “which one did you notice first?”

“I noticed them both at exactly the same time.”

“Which one,” he wouldn’t give up, “has the best idea?”

“They’re both great ideas.”

“But which one was executed best?”

“They’re both executed evenly well.”

My son finally stopped. Then he cried out, “If it was life or death . . .”

Clearly I won.

Critics assert that competition has negative influences on student achievement.

Alfie Kohn, an American author and lecturer on matters related to education, parenting and human behavior, says that competition turns all of us into losers. British labor economist Richard Layard adds that competition forces people to feel that their main objective in life is to do better than other people.

That’s Bad.

But I felt great about doing better than my son in our little debate. Experts say that America’s national education system tries to make each generation go beyond the last. Well, the experts are wrong in this case. Daddy was clearly king on this day.

Then my son turned away, defeated. I wasn’t a winner after all. To really win, I’d have to choose.

“Well, if it was life or death,” I gave in, “and I had to choose, I’d pick that one.”

“This one?” he asked. “Why this one?”

“You wanted me to choose,” I said. “I chose. What’s the difference which one I choose?”

“Because the one you chose isn’t mine. It’s my friend’s from school.”

I couldn’t backtrack and say I made a mistake. My son was too smart for that.

“Your friend drew this one?” I asked, grabbing the drawing I clearly didn’t choose as my favorite.

“No, this is my drawing,” he said, showing me the one in his hand. “But you chose that one.”

“No I didn’t.”

Darn that education system -- the kid knew better.

“Look,” I said. “Did you have fun making your picture?”


“Well that’s what matters. Look at your friend’s drawing. The lines are too perfect. That means he wasn’t having fun because he was working too hard. He probably takes one of those strict art classes that makes drawing more of a chore. Your picture looks like you had fun. Look at those messy, joyful lines.”

My son agreed with me. He said drawing is never work, never a chore. He said drawing is always fun and always a joy.

Pheee-ew. That was a good save.

“So,” my son said when it was all over, “if you had to choose the artist who had the most fun -- me or my friend -- who would you pick as the winner?

-May 2013

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