Some researchers have found that competition can have “positive results” when used as a motivational technique in the classroom—meaning that when students compete with each other to get better test scores, overall scores increase. However, life learners know that success on a test doesn’t necessarily relate to learning.

In fact, research going back to the early 70s has found that, in group educational settings, cooperation is a more effective tool than competition, probably because competition creates anxiety and can dampen motivation. (Two examples of this research are “Effects of Cooperation and Competition on Pupil Learning” by G. Brian Thompson, in Educational Research and “Effects of Competition on Learning” by David A. Goodman and James Crouch, in Improving College and University Teaching)

Competition also can lead to cheating—from doping in professional sport to sharing test questions in school, to fudging test results. In the high pressure world of standardized test scores, where they are used to grade not only students but teachers (sometimes with the latter’s jobs at stake), it’s not surprising that a lot of cheating goes on in school systems.

Furthermore, in spite of all the negatives, parents often allow their own competitive anxiety to influence their children. We all know parents who push their children to succeed academically in aid of securing a spot in university and ultimately a well-paying job. Some parents also have a huge ego involvement in their kids’ progress, according to psychology professor and author Wendy Grolnick. While some children and young people turn off under such pressure, others end up with anxiety-triggered illnesses.

Grolnick’s message to competitive parents is to nurture their children’s autonomy and confidence in their own abilities rather than pressuring them to compete—either academically or in other aspects of life.

Learn More

Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids: Dealing With Competition While Raising a Successful Child by Wendy S. Grolnick, Kathy Seal (Prometheus Books, 2008)

Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting by Carl Honore (Harper, 2009)

The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon (3rd edition) by David Elkind (Perseus, 2001)

Everyone Wins!: Cooperative Games and Activities by Josette Luvmour, Sambhava Luvmour (New Society Publishers, 2007)

Cooperative Games and Sports: Joyful Activities for Everyone by Terry Orlick (Human Kinetics, 2006)

Win-Win Games for All Ages: Co-operative Activities for Building Social Skills by Sambhava Luvmour, Josette Luvmour (New Society Publishers, 2002)

Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning’s editor, the mother of two self-taught adult daughters, the editor of Natural Life Magazine, and the author of ten books, including Challenging Assumptions in Education: From Institutionalized Education to a Learning Society. This article originally appeared in Life Learning Magazine. © Wendy Priesnitz.