We Can't Have It Both Ways

     We are a society obsessed with competition—winning at the expense of others. We teach our kids to win by using force, and we wonder why they are so violent.

    It’s obvious that our schools subtly and overtly promote competition over cooperation. For example, when grades are based on the bell curve, the shortage of possible As is a set-up for competition. In an effort to motivate students to push themselves harder, teachers sometimes pit students against each other in contests—to see who is the best at a given problem-solving task or skill, who reads the largest number of books, who earns the most gold stars, etc.

    However, the strategy of getting students to compete for grades, or anything else, can backfire. When students become too invested in getting the glory grade, they sometimes forfeit the intrinsic joy of learning. An eleven-year-old girl told me that she used to like to read. Now she chooses the easiest and shortest books in order to be the one in her class who’s read the largest number of books. I’ve seen very bright and creative high school students rendered physically ill, almost catatonic, when competition for grades to get into the right college and possibly win a schoolarship diminished rather than enhanced the expression of their natural abilities.

    Many will shout praise for team sports that encourage cooperation. Each player does her or his part with a common goal to win the game, and team members cooperatively collaborate with each other to achieve that goal. That certainly fits the definition of collaborative cooperation, but let’s take a closer look. The goal is to win the game. The goal of the other team is to win the game. One team must lose for the other to win. We could more accurately state that team sports teach kids to cooperate on one level in order to compete on another.

    A good-natured game of checkers, a swimming race, table tennis, a baseball game; these are fun activities. But nobody likes to lose, even in fun. Maybe competition teaches us to be good losers. A good loser is someone who cheers an excellent performance even when he or she is on the losing team.

    Cheering the excellent performance of the winner is asking a lot of the loser. More often than not, winning is far more rewarding than being a good loser. But what happens when winning gets to be too important, when the whole school is counting on their team to win the big game against the other school, when the bleachers are filled with cheering and jeering parents, classmates, coaches, and teachers, and the pressure to win is on? The more important winning becomes, the greater the temptation to cheat. Unfortunately, cheating is an option that can be good-naturedly condoned.

    When teams, or individuals, compete with each other physically, accidental injuries can be expected. A baseball player, for example, can fall and break an ankle in an attempt to steal second base. When physical force is an intrinsic and necessary part of the game, however—when winning cannot be accomplished without force, competition crosses a dangerous line and is better described as combat. Combat is using physically violent strategies for winning.  Boxing is one good example, football another. In those sports, where winning is dependent on using physical force against the opponent in bodily contact, injuries are the natural consequence of the violence perpetrated by one player on another. Players are not just accidentally injured; they’re wounded in action.

    Sports that require players to use physical violence against one another, to win by force, would be better described as games that mimic warfare. The difference between the game and the real thing is a matter of stakes. In competition, for every winner there is a loser.  In warfare, the stakes are higher, and the ratio of winners to losers changes. There are only losers.

    Competition can be a good thing: when it motivates students or employees to stretch to do their best, when the importance of winning is kept within reason, when cheating is condemned, and when excellence is cheered regardless of whose team the player is on.

    Yet we can’t have it both ways. We can’t encourage our youth to use physical force to win at the expense of others and then expect those youth to be non-violent.

    There are two less frequently cited theories to explain why our youth have become so violent: our system’s failure to adequately promote cooperation and our children’s prolonged adolescence and dependence on authority.

    There are two kinds of cooperation: reciprocity (treating others fairly) and collaboration (working together to achieve a common goal). We’ve already covered how collaborative cooperation is taught in a context of competition. Teaching reciprocity is neglected because it is most often misunderstood.

    The need to survive in a technologically astute world has created a longer learning curve and prolonged dependence on authority. Our youth are developmentally ready to be self-reliant, but our promotion of their dependence on authority and our obsession with competition hampers their ability to be active participants in a badly needed solution to a very serious problem.

    Teenagers—not quite adults, not quite kids, and not quite jaded by the reality that life is not quite fair—might have an important edge for keeping minor altercations from escalating into violence. Given the opportunity, the skills, the encouragement to be self-reliant, and a culture that promotes and nurtures cooperation, they may be able to break the bully/victim cycle, at least in the simple context within which they live their everyday lives.

    There are many fine programs and interventions based on a multiplicity of theories that address the problem of bullying and its shadow, the fear of violence that haunts our youth and hampers their learning. Most aspire to protect the victims and either rehabilitate or punish the bullies. A paternalistic central authority has shouldered the responsibility for developing solutions and benevolently imposing their solutions on our youth.

    Reciprocity—responding in kind and like degree—promotes self-reliance and cooperation in a context where individuals know they will be encountering each other on an ongoing basis for an unspecified length of time. Schools provide precisely that kind of environment.

    Interpersonal conflict and the perception of significant differences between people are normal. The extent to which altercations between individuals in conflict with each other become coercive or violent depends in some degree upon the culture within which these conflicts occur, and upon the extent to which adolescents are permitted to act on their own behalf. A cooperative culture based on reciprocity will not eliminate the perception of differences (or, likewise, interpersonal conflict), but within a cooperative culture based on reciprocity, altercations are less likely to become coercive or combative.

    Look at it this way: A hundred years ago, people were expected to take on adult responsibilities when they were as young as twelve years of age. Self-reliance and mediating minor altercations without involving central authority were the norm. Our modern technological world requires a longer learning curve before our youth can be adequately prepared to deal with life as defined by Silicon Valley and the big city. The result is the creation of a whole, relatively new, segment of society—teenagers. Teenagers are people who are caught in kind of a limbo, between being adults, who have all the freedoms and the responsibilities of citizens, and being dependent kids, whose primary responsibilities are to study their lessons and follow the rules.

    We can’t have it both ways. We can’t expect our youth to act responsibly with their hands tied behind their backs.

    Encouraging young people to be self-reliant and promoting cooperation are perhaps the greatest responsibilities we have to our children, both the bullies and the victims. It is perhaps also the best investment we can make in our own future.

—M. LaCourt

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