Parenting: Revisiting competition and kids' birthday parties - it's about bonding, not winning
Dear Kerry, You took a lot of flak from readers when you criticized a competitive game at a birthday party for 6-year-olds. Most people said kids should be toughened up by competition since they will have to deal with it when they grow up. You seem to think differently. I’m not sure. Can you say more about this issue for kids? — JC, Ann Arbor
People seem to have intense feelings about topics that bring big feelings along with them. Whenever there’s that much heat, I think there’s more for us to understand. Whether we are the winner or the loser, the emotions seem to run deep, lay down vivid memories, and evoke vehement opinions!
Children need to develop the emotional muscles to tolerate failure, keep trying, enjoy the process of learning and honing skills, as well as feeling good about mastering something hard or new. This won’t happen if you are overprotective, but it also doesn’t happen unless there are graded experiences of success without humiliation.
When parents help their children build those strengths gradually over time, children become self-motivated learners, proud of themselves and confident that they can acquire school and life skills.
These are pleasures in themselves, where we want the experience itself to feel so good that the child wants to repeat it. Prizes and incentives may help us all hang in there at times to keep at a game or task, but the external reward will be meaningless if the child doesn’t get satisfaction inside from exercising his emotional muscles. Grownups have the job of providing opportunities for connecting fun and pleasure with trying and learning.
That is entirely different from setting up situations where a child beats the other kids, in other words, is a "winner" because other kids are "losers."
I’m not sure it’s good to be the “king of the castle” if it means that someone else has to be the “dirty rascal.” Those don’t sound like democratic values to me and it doesn’t teach children anything about the cooperation that they will need to exercise in the workplace and the community, as well as in personal relationships.
People sometimes talk about competition as if it’s natural and necessary — they even refer to “survival of the fittest” as the only important guiding principle of life. If that’s all there is to learn, it’s logical to teach your children to compete at all costs.
But researchers in the field of resilience have begun to emphasize a neglected strand in Darwin’s theories that turns out to be just as meaningful. A person’s sympathetic capacities for group functioning and contributing to the common good are as important for success and long life as being able to beat others.
Professional athletes, usually seen as the most competitive people of all, know what to prioritize. For instance, Dwayne Wade, LA Lakers basketball star, said in December 2010, “Right now we’re not at a championship level but we’re building championship habits.”
He was talking about building the emotional muscles you need to be patient, to work with teammates, to strengthen skills, to plan ahead, to practice, and many more.
That takes us back to birthday parties and what they’re for.
Pleasure, appreciation, a chance to mark a special day, an expression of love — these are all fun in the context of relationships.
So, if parties have to have a purpose at all, they can be geared to support and celebrate the strong bonds between parents and children, between siblings and peers, and in a group of children. They can involve games in groups, and activities that celebrate the skills of all, even if they operate at different levels. Maybe that’s why so many party games are kind of silly; that way everyone can enjoy playing and it doesn’t matter how well you do. Parties are not about competition — they’re about bonding and love!
Kerry Kelly Novick is a local child, adolescent and adult psychoanalyst, and author, with Jack Novick, of "Emotional Muscle: Strong Parents, Strong Children," available at amazon.com or through