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Rarely is the question asked: is our kids competing?
July 16, 2014 10:41 AM   Subscribe

"We sort our kids. We rate them. We chart them, and we measure their progress against the rest of the country and pray that they come out on the high end of the curve. And frankly, it's all horseshit. Every last bit of it. The competition industry is crushing us all." Drew Magary, at Deadspin, unloads on the idea that "these kids today" are little ninnies made soft by participation trophies and unscored soccer games.

"DAD: I would like to know what you're doing to help make the children competitive.

TEACHER: Competitive?

DAD: We want him to be competitive.

TEACHER: Well, all the students are two years old, so mostly this is just structured playtime.

DAD: But I want to make sure that he will be competitive.

TEACHER: (floundering) Oh, well he'll be very competitive.

DAD: OK, good."

"There are only a few people who genuinely enjoy pressure—mostly assholes—and the sporting culture and education culture is basically built to accommodate just them. No one else. "

And many more quotable nuggets.
posted by escabeche (49 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
I really enjoyed that essay. (Also, I must confess, the discussion of child art in the comments).
posted by longdaysjourney at 10:50 AM on July 16 [2 favorites]


I did not enjoy this essay. I think it came down to this:

No one ever says the obvious, which is that competition is irrelevant once you decide on your own ambitions and the best way of pursuing them—once you've defined your own parameters for success. Being satisfied with the process of learning, or playing, or participating, is what matters. If one of 5,000 other people beat you out for that chili cook-off prize, who gives a shit? You should never rely on overwhelmingly poor odds to define your happiness.

I'm sorry, but for a lot of people, that's the only odds we have. It's all good and fair to say don't put your hopes on a one in five thousand chance, but that's the modern job market. I can't not define my happiness by a roof over my head and food in my belly. There are base minimum parameters for success.

A lot of this competitiveness he sees are people desparate to give their kids the same middle class lifestyle they had, one that is more and more precarious. They read about people with master's degrees working at Starbucks, and living with their parents. They read about crippling debt. They see more and more avenues being walled off. They look outside and the wolf is howling.

This is a man who got into a good prep school and a good college through unearned privilege that is less and less available and he wonders what's everybody so het up about?
posted by zabuni at 10:57 AM on July 16 [15 favorites]


Declining opportunity for material and cultural success means greater competition for fewer resources.

Eventually it will create two societal groups: the inner "winners" and the outside "losers". We see the development of these categories right now, see: Mitt Romney's 47% comments, peopleofwalmart, etc.
posted by Avenger at 10:58 AM on July 16 [1 favorite]


a 5-year-old son who hates losing. I don't mean this as a compliment. He BLOWS at losing. He rigs pretty much any game in the backyard in his favor, and if you call him out on him, he gives you a red card (he's also the ref). And if you beat him (and, as it stands now, I can totally beat him at everything), he cries and cries and cries until you let him win the next game so he stops crying. I took him to a bar to watch Mexico play Holland in the World Cup and he arbitrarily cheered on Mexico. When they blew the game, he acted like a wailing widow throwing herself on a coffin.
Heh!
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 10:58 AM on July 16 [1 favorite]


artisanal parenting

i'm totally stealing that.
posted by echocollate at 11:00 AM on July 16 [6 favorites]


I went to a shitty high school and a shitty college (sorry Portland State in the mid 90s) and I have the same question Magary does. However, I don't have kids so maybe that's why.
posted by josher71 at 11:13 AM on July 16 [2 favorites]


I think the highest I placed was fourth. Maybe. If so, it was probably only because the event had four kids in it. And trust me: I knew exactly how meaningless those ribbons were. No child has ever been hoodwinked by phony accolades. They know when they suck.

Amen, brother. I once got a fifth place ribbon at a swim meet- because the sixth swimmer started to hyperventilate in the water. BREASTSTROKE FOR LIFE!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:13 AM on July 16 [3 favorites]


(Also, I must confess, the discussion of child art in the comments).

The chicken handjob is a thing of beauty.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 11:15 AM on July 16 [9 favorites]


While competing may be some people's idea of what it takes to get a job (and there are arguments to support this), there is also a strong counterpoint.

Most people will spend most of their lives actually *working*, not looking for a job. And when you are working, 'competing' is not something that's useful at all. Employers want people who can *cooperate*, who can work as a team. Sure, when you work at Apple, you're company is competing with Google, Microsoft, whatever, but that fact isn't really important in your job. What's important is that you do your job well, work well with others, collaborate, cooperate, and get along with others.

People that continue to view a job as competition once they have the job aren't the best coworkers, and aren't the best employees.

So yeah, I'll reject the 'kids need to learn competition for their adult lives'. I think that's bullshit.

Within a job those that 'compete' are the back-stabbers, the people that look after themselves instead of the organization they are in.

If sports impart any life-skills, it's not competing against another team, it's cooperating and collaborating with your own team (but I don't think you need sports or other competitions to teach these skills).
posted by el io at 11:20 AM on July 16 [39 favorites]


On the train a few weeks ago, I overheard a dad talk about his son's baseball team. He had some pretty strong opinions on which kids on the team had real potential and which kids were just no good, and could he get his son on a better team, and what all the coaches needed to do to make their team more competitive and such and so. His kid was six years old, it turned out.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:22 AM on July 16 [4 favorites]


Never forget that no matter how good you are at any given skill, there is a greater than 99.999999985% likelihood that someone else is better.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:25 AM on July 16 [4 favorites]


I love this entire essay. I'm thinking about my own experiences as a kid. I was in exactly one school athletic team in my life, junior high wrestling, and my own personal Waterloo was during an away meet when it turned out that we had one more wrestler on our team than the other team had, which threw off the match-up schedule (or whatever it's called), which is when I was declared officially the worst wrestler on the team and sat out the entire meet. My activity in high school was orchestra, which I had a blast in precisely because there was no competitive aspect to it, and for which I got a letter which I never even seriously considered wearing. (When I went to college, I found out that the orchestra was composed of musicians for whom it was a competitive activity, if they weren't actual music majors, and that was that.)

I contrast my experience as a kid with the kids of an acquaintance of mine who has two young children--I'm not sure exactly how old, but within the single-digit range, and closer to the early years of grade school--who is getting her kids involved in sports just because that's the sort of thing that you're supposed to do. The sad thing is that, even though she wasn't involved in sports at all as a kid, she was starting to get involved in cycling both for the social aspect and for physical fitness, but now she seems to be limiting her activities mostly to working, social events centered around drinking, and running the kids around to their various teams and other after-school activities.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:27 AM on July 16


I think there are a bunch of related but different concepts bundled up together under the name "competitive" - some are good, some are not so good. But I totally relate to everything in this article. There's healthy competition and unhealthy competitiveness.

Personally, I think I'm super competitive - I play games to win, when I work out, I compete against my self from yesterday. I take as much money as I can from my friends at poker. I think a big part of keeping it healthy is learning how to accept losing - I don't feel that bad when I lose. I've adopted a saying I heard around jiu jitsu - "you win or you learn." My self-image is not invested in the win - it's invested in knowing I put in the work. Winning is a side effect that just adds to the good feeling.

As a sport, I think jiu jitsu is a great one for maintaining a healthy sense of competitiveness. You literally have to submit to someone (often smaller and lighter than you) hundreds or thousands of times. Tapping out becomes no big deal. Your ego stays a healthy size, and there are no teammates to blame for your losses.

I have a son in middle school. I'm happy that he's not super competitive, but I often wonder how to encourage him to really give 100% effort to things. The article doesn't really cover that, but as I see my son trying to scrape by with bare minimums (a habit I once had) I'm totally at a loss as to how to address it, or even it's even worth addressing before he has some more life experience.
posted by bashos_frog at 11:36 AM on July 16 [4 favorites]


RE: "you win or you learn."

Yep: success doesn't teach you nearly as much as failure about how something works and how d=you do it. So you won? So what will you work on for next time? But if you lose, you can often spot something that was sub-optimal and try to develop yourself that way.

I tell my kids that "build one to throw away" is a fine plan as long as you allow enough time to look over your experiment before you do the "real" work. Of course, with nightly homework this isn't always possible. :7) But it shows them that we don't expect perfection right away, nor every time, and that their persistence has its own value long after the current school year ends.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:42 AM on July 16 [2 favorites]


The last and only race I won was as a pair of gametes.

I quit competition before I was even a head.
posted by srboisvert at 11:42 AM on July 16 [18 favorites]


"There are only a few people who genuinely enjoy pressure—mostly assholes—and the sporting culture and education culture is basically built to accommodate just them. No one else. "

I feel this!

But there could be something a little more interesting going on underneath.

ADHD/ADD diagnoses (and the phenomenon itself) have been rising in concert with the culture of extreme competition, and I don't think that's any coincidence.

The stimulants we treat ADHD with act at receptors which are also the targets of endogenous chemicals the production of which is sharply increased by the "pressure" of extreme competition, and I think the culture of competition has arisen in part as an adaptive response to the fact that we and our kids are now sick in ways that keep us from performing well except when highly stimulated.
posted by jamjam at 11:42 AM on July 16 [1 favorite]


I have one sort-of-hard-won piece of wisdom from my life experience and it is: don't make decisions based on fear.* Every time I have done so, I've regretted it; taken awful jobs, not fought for what I believed in, dated the worst people, missed out on awesome things or at least interesting things. When I ignore it, I come out much better, though I still fail often. But I am always in a better place for trying as opposed to hiding.

This whole rush-to-compete is transparently based on fear, that there's only so many gold rings and if your kid doesn't get one, something vaguely horrible will happen. They never say what, exactly, that something is. A degree from a not-Ivy? Not being President? Becoming a homeless dude living in a box? When the reality is, it will probably be something between those extremes.

And parents are easy marks. We lie awake at night sweating our children's futures, ridden by doubt that we are making their lives crappy by not doing A or by doing B. Marketers play on that, by insinuating that there is one Map to Success and that they have a copy, and for the right payment, they'll give you a copy too.

It's all bullshit. You have no idea what your kids will face, or if good grades and the "right" degree will actually protect them from anything. Which is scary! But if you're that scared, take all that money you give to preppers and testing and put it in a savings account (or hell, a sock under the bed) for your kid. That's more likely to give them a leg up.

Which is separate from: the bad place graduates are in right now. That is something that can and should be solved by political action, not by throwing money at scam artists and turning our children in future burnouts.

*outside of situations where you are physically in danger.
posted by emjaybee at 11:47 AM on July 16 [32 favorites]


My activity in high school was orchestra, which I had a blast in precisely because there was no competitive aspect to it, and for which I got a letter which I never even seriously considered wearing.

In the school orchestras I was in, we had auditions for section and chair placement. We weren't directly competing against each other, I suppose. But:

In middle school, the first chair position for the final recital came down to a runoff between me and another kid. We were to play out of sight of everyone else, draw straws to see who went first, and everyone would vote for the better player. The kid tried to cheat by telling his friends he'd cough before his turn -- but I overheard him and coughed too. I won that chair. :)

In high school I wore both my music letter and my academics letter, because the school was so jock-oriented and I wanted to tweak their noses.
posted by Foosnark at 11:51 AM on July 16 [11 favorites]


I told both my girls when they started school that I didn't care what grades they got as long as they understood the subject. School was always easy for me, because my parent were good at home educating (meaning that our home was a place of education, not that we were home-schooled). Then I got to college and took an advanced math course that was way beyond my abilities and preparation. I got a C, in spite of not understanding a damn thing about the subject. That's when I realized that grades don't matter, understanding is all that matters. I wanted my daughters to focus on understanding and assured them that if they did, a decent, but irrelevant grade would follow.
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:11 PM on July 16 [8 favorites]


My son is sports crazy and has always been super competitive, which has been unfortunate because he's not super gifted, athletics-wise. My tack has always been to channel that competition against himself, so that he's not trying to beat the 99.9999 of kids better than him, but instead the version of himself from the last game or last season. So when ESPN gives more coverage to the Most Improved Team than it does to the Super Bowl winner, that will probably turn out to be an awesome parenting strategy.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 12:17 PM on July 16 [7 favorites]


That is actually an awesome parenting strategy and you should feel good about it.
posted by elizardbits at 12:18 PM on July 16 [4 favorites]


The point of competition is not to "enjoy pressure". Jesus.

I'd better stay out of this thread.
posted by Decani at 12:31 PM on July 16


Yeah, especially if you haven't read the article first so you come into it understanding that's not what it says.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:32 PM on July 16 [5 favorites]


I came across this piece a couple of days ago somewhere and thought it was great. Definitely worth a read if you're a parent feeling these pressures.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:42 PM on July 16


If you're not drinking creationist kool-aid, and are even only superficially versed in evolution theory you know that competition is awfully fundamental to life. Survival of the fittest, and all.

I'm believing that we all gotta compete -- it's hard wired. It's an itch we'll always have to scratch. For that reason, I'll lean less "Down with competition" and more "Up with finding your competition." For a youngster, it's probably mostly exclusively like stupidsexyFlanders says: compete with the version of yourself from yesterday, last week, last game, last practice. If this sort of self-competition builds skill and confidence and enjoyment, as appropriate, turn the focus towards "you know what you can do, you know what person/team X can do, go out and do it better!"

Trouble is, this line of thinking has about 800% too many fluid boundaries and judgement calls for an internet article or stubbornly opinionated folks to negotiate. I mean, I don't think obligatory swimming ribbons (oh I had a ton!!) or unscored soccer games are bad for kids, I certainly don't think they're making anyone into flubbering ninnies. But I think the "good job, you showed up!" rewarding, in conjunction with Mr. Overzealous Preschool Dad, get hoisted up in conversations like this and turn things into a all-or-nothing scenario, which demeans the vital role a healthy competitive outlet can have in our lives.
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 12:43 PM on July 16


If you're not drinking creationist kool-aid, and are even only superficially versed in evolution theory you know that competition is awfully fundamental to life. Survival of the fittest, and all.

If you're more than superficially familiar with evolutionary theory, you know that competitive pressure is only one of a wide range of different selective pressures, the most important of which is natural selection, which has to do not with the ability to outperform competitors but with the ability to adapt ("fit") to a particular environment.

You also know that "survival of the fittest" to Darwin (as he himself explained at length) meant survival of the species best fitted to their immediate environment, not survival of the strongest or more competitively "fit" in the modern sense of that word.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:51 PM on July 16 [37 favorites]


I'd better stay out of this thread.

Fail.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:54 PM on July 16 [8 favorites]


Well I can't defend myself: I don't have the knowledge of 'survival of the fittest' to use it beyond the pseudo-scientific way I did in that first paragraph. I reckon you could say I'm conflating evolutionary stuff and behavioral stuff and generally imprecise stuff follows.

But I'm not going to hedge on my main idea that, we need to compete. I think that the notion of "we need to compete" doesn't immediately get personified by Way-too-intense-Preschool Dad. I like the article; I really like the point above that sometimes the best way to define competition is me vs. what-I-did-last-time.
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 1:06 PM on July 16


What you're describing is the mangled misunderstanding of Darwin that gave rise to what historians call "Social Darwinism"--which inspired the Nazis and the US Eugenics movement, but was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the science of evolution. "Fitness", as used in biology, doesn't mean what people who talk about "survival of the fittest" thinks it does. All it describes is the level of fit between and organism and its environment. Competition doesn't factor into it in a major way except when there are conditions of extreme scarcity or in sexual selection processes.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:07 PM on July 16 [15 favorites]


I disagree, because all competition does is filter options down. If we want more diversity in a market, competition would be the mechanism by which we reduce diversity in the market, by eliminating competitors.

It's got its uses but we need to understand what competition is and does better and more precisely before we just make big assumptions about it being "good" or "bad" in the abstract.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:09 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]


A great article.

This is my #1 concern with continuing to live in the US (I'm an expat and raising children in the US is a distinct possibility). When I was a kid many many miles away, it seemed totally acceptable to be ordinary, gormless, uncoordinated, naive... a kid.

I feel that my ability to compete and thrive in the adult world was greatly helped by being able to grow up into whatever I turned out to be, unencumbered by artificial stress and a perpetual fear of failure.
posted by Chipeaux at 1:11 PM on July 16 [8 favorites]


I'd better stay out of this thread.

Fail.


Yes! I'm one competitor closer to winning this thread.
posted by infinitewindow at 1:14 PM on July 16 [15 favorites]


I'm sorry, but for a lot of people, that's the only odds we have. It's all good and fair to say don't put your hopes on a one in five thousand chance, but that's the modern job market. I can't not define my happiness by a roof over my head and food in my belly. There are base minimum parameters for success.

If there are a dwindling number of good spots, more intense competition doesn't really benefit society overall. Maybe it changes who wins those spots. It also makes the winners feel more deserving. (On the other hand, competition is also useful for pushing people, for highlighting the upper bound of possible performance, etc., so it's not all bad either.)

If you're not drinking creationist kool-aid, and are even only superficially versed in evolution theory you know that competition is awfully fundamental to life. Survival of the fittest, and all.

Evolutionary theory basically says that things that survive survive and things that don't survive don't survive. No, it's not actually a tautology but it's not a moral guide either.
posted by leopard at 1:18 PM on July 16 [4 favorites]


Stupidsexyflanders: shift your kid to golf and tennis.

Consistent and dedicated practice, with very modest athletic skill thrown in, will result in him by the time he's in his 20s being one of the best golfers or tennis players he'll know in pretty much any community or group he'll be in, and, as these are sports adults play, he'll get to be contextually a top competitor for the next 40 years.

Trust me, I know lots of guys who were great baseball players when they were teenagers and lots of guys who are single digit handicappers now and the latter is a heck of lot more useful and satisfying for someone who has a real desire to win in sports.
posted by MattD at 1:23 PM on July 16 [3 favorites]


I love this article. Thank you for posting it. I have always been a non-competitive person who much prefers cooperative activities to competitive ones. This is probably why my main form of exercise is yoga instead of some kind of team sport which I have always hated. Once I perceive there is an element of competition to an activity -- like scores in video games even when the gameplay itself is cooperative -- I immediately become disinterested and stop wanting to even try. I've always felt this is a negative quality about myself since we live in such a competitive society but now I see I am not the only one who feels this way. I understand the value of competition in some contexts but it is just not the approach for me.
posted by Librarypt at 1:45 PM on July 16 [4 favorites]


Ha! He's already shifting to tennis away from baseball on his own initiative. And as that's also the route I took, I can confirm everything you're saying about adult sports.

And not sure about other individual sports, but tennis and golf are the only ones I know of that have ability ratings so that you CAN ALWAYS BE COMPETITIVE.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 1:51 PM on July 16


"... ARE our kids competitive."

(wheels away as quickly as his arms will allow)
posted by DrAstroZoom at 2:28 PM on July 16 [3 favorites]


"If you're not drinking creationist kool-aid, and are even only superficially versed in evolution theory you know that competition is awfully fundamental to life. Survival of the fittest, and all."

The competition that matters is what's necessary to manage to successfully reproduce. Because if you're going to oversimplify natural selection, then successful reproduction is what it's essentially about.

There is something deeply insidious about the enduring mistaken popular notion of evolution as a progression toward an Übermensch, with the concomitant ideological valorization of competition and perfection, because it very neatly, and suspiciously, slots right into the very worst, most horrific ideologies of the modern age. We've mostly ostracized the explicit eugenicists and social darwinists; but all the essential ideas are alive and well, spread widely throughout popular culture and are generally unquestioned. And those ideas still do the work of furthering the sorts of goals that the eugenicists and social darwinists had.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:33 PM on July 16 [7 favorites]


DrAstroZoom: "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?" -- President George W. Bush, Florence, South Carolina; January 11, 2000

(From the man who brought us "working hard to put food on your family" and "They misunderestimated me.")
posted by bashos_frog at 2:37 PM on July 16 [2 favorites]


I'm all for a healthy amount of respectful competition; it can produce some worthwhile results - from self-knowledge to more efficient processes. But, holy cow, you'd have to be blind not to see how competition has become more and more of a fetish in America. You literally cannot escape the pundits and prognosticators and libertarians who think dog-eat-dog competition is the answer to EVERYTHING.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 3:30 PM on July 16


"these kids today" are little ninnies made soft by participation trophies

I was watching an MST3K short from the 50s (this one) that featured kids participating in a junior rodeo. Wouldn't you know it, at the end all the kids got participation trophies.
posted by dirigibleman at 3:42 PM on July 16 [3 favorites]


(From the man who brought us "working hard to put food on your family" and "They misunderestimated me.")

And who routinely used the word "subscribe" for "ascribe" and the non-word "resignate" for the word "resonate." And many other malapropisms. I ground my teeth every time I heard that imbecile talk through his smirky little mouth.
posted by Mental Wimp at 7:49 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]


And not sure about other individual sports, but tennis and golf are the only ones I know of that have ability ratings so that you CAN ALWAYS BE COMPETITIVE.

Really? It's true for older players, perhaps (handicapping, etc.) but when I played competitive tennis as a kid, there was only one tournament for everyone. And I got whupped. A lot.

You are all missing the greatest sport of all, where 80 year-olds can compete with 10 year-olds, honestly, and get great exercise.

PING PONG

great article, btw. competition is bullshit. cooperation (of the interdisciplinary sort) is the only thing that can possibly save our sorry asses.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:43 PM on July 16 [2 favorites]


you'd have to be blind not to see how competition has become more and more of a fetish in America

Yep. And I blame capitalism. Also (and relatedly) for atomization. My only quibble with the article, in fact, is that inasmuch as the author suggests any solutions (he's mainly concerned with convincing readers that a problem exists), they are entirely individual solutions (just ignore social pressures while parenting, I guess?) rather than concerted group action - though he's only at the step of talking to people and sharing common experiences, so that's entirely excusable.
posted by eviemath at 5:08 AM on July 17


dirigibleman: "I was watching an MST3K short from the 50s (this one) that featured kids participating in a junior rodeo. Wouldn't you know it, at the end all the kids got participation trophies."

I've seen that short too. That rodeo was a goddamned bloodbath, and any kid left standing earned a participation trophy.
posted by joelhunt at 6:18 AM on July 17


I think the problem is that the US has decided that society should be viewed as one giant competition, and that that's OK. You can question the rules of the game, and you can question its fairness - although there are powerful forces that will oppose even that - but you can't seriously question the competition itself. Basically, we've decided that, so long as the rules are fair (or appear to be fair), the winners get what they deserve, and the losers get what they deserve, and if you've lost, well, fuck you.

I'm not saying all competition is bad, or unfair, or that it does not have a useful or proper place. But it shouldn't be the most important guiding principle of society; in the US, increasingly, it is.
posted by breakin' the law at 8:03 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]


I'm 19 and I've never been to a wedding before. But next week, I'll be going to my seventh funeral for someone younger than me.

From a response sent to Deadspin by a recent graduate of the W.T. Woodson High School mentioned in the original article.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:27 AM on July 17


I'm just going to encourage my kids to focus on something they are passionate about and work with their natural talents. You can only compete in so many arenas. We think that people have to be well-rounded renaissance men and women or whatever but that's not the case. They can suck at geography and be amazing welders.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:28 PM on July 17


As an eleven year old I hated playing soccer for "fun".
I remember thinking, "Of course, it mattered who won or lost!
Why bother playing if you are not going to try to win?"
posted by Gwynarra at 12:13 PM on July 18


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