Competitions:  Motivators for Growth or Destroyers of Self-Esteem?

In the not too distant past, competition was a negative word in educational circles.  The thinking was that children are damaged by competition and that a competitive environment prevents them from developing their talents. There is some truth to that observation.  And yet we have seen that kids left alone like to compete with each other.  How often have you heard, “race you to the fence over there,” or “I”ll bet I can do more jumping jacks than you.”  The truth is, we like to test our abilities against someone else’s to see where we are and to challenge ourselves to do more.  This can be a very healthy attitude.

Music competitions likewise can be an experience that challenges our kids and helps them to grow or it can be discouraging and damaging.  What makes the difference and what role do we parents play in all of this?

In order to compete in a healthy way, kids need to understand how the “game” is played and what they can expect and not expect.  A music competition is not like a timed athletic race where it is clear who wins by who jumps farther or runs faster or throws the object the furthest.  Music competitions are more like the ice skating events we love to watch- very subjective.  This isn’t too say that the judges aren’t highly trained and know what to look for or listen for, but nonetheless, music is an art and subject to a lot of interpretation.  We have all witnessed events, whether in sports or in music where we didn’t agree with the referee or the judge’s decision.  It happens because judges are only human and can make mistakes, or we simply don’t agree with their perspective.  So a healthy attitude to have towards a competition is to know going into it, that one might not get the desired outcome.  Sometimes a student can prepare with great diligence, but in the moment it doesn’t come together as well as they had hoped for. Or maybe the preparation wasn’t as thorough  as it needed to be, or maybe it was just an off day, or maybe the judging seemed off.   We as parents and teachers can help to frame these experiences in a way that can be very helpful to our kids.  We can be a consistent ally, not effected very much by the win or the loss.  We can teach them that sometimes we win and sometimes we lose- no big deal.  We can teach them to be respectful of other people’s opinions even when we don’t agree with them, and to not gloat over doing better than someone else.   Kids will pick up from us our attitude of what is important and what is not important.  Winning a competition can be great fun, and losing not so much fun, but whatever the experience is, it can be something we can learn from and use as fuel and grist to keep moving forward.  Competitions do not always reward the laws of sowing and reaping but real life does and that is what we want our kids to keep their focus on- prepare well consistently over time and you will have life skills.