Competing for a lifetime
I talked to Dr Timea Papp about competing, competition situations and their effects on our lives.
How do we begin to compete?
Competing is an important part of our lives. If we think about it, already the sperms are competing for the ovum at the moment of insemination. When the infant is born, he is in an exposed situation and in order to fulfil its needs, it starts to compete and it would like to take on certain personality traits.
Competing takes a different form at different stages in life. It starts at early childhood with peers, siblings and with the same-sex parent. It is paired with owning and satisfying of our needs. The child first wants to own objects - they take everything into their mouth, e.g. if the toys are taken from them, they start crying and they would like to own their mothers and fathers. This plays an important role at later developmental stages and it aims at power acquisition with different methods.
How does competing manifest itself?
When the child is placed into a community, they need to adapt and they need to adjust to the expectations of the group. At these occasions, they must balance between being social creatures and wanting to fulfil themselves. At the beginning, competing serves the purpose of getting a favourable position within the group and community. However, for this, communication and cooperation is indispensable, which can be acquired through a long process of learning. It is very important for the child to learn to divert competing in a positive direction, because in the opposite case, they won't be able to endorse their will and satisfy their needs.
The kindergarten age is the hallway to learning, because real competing begins at the primary school age, when students are being put to the test all the time. They are forced to get to know the power relation systems at school and outside of it and they learn where they are situated when they compare their traits to others'. In the pre-puberty and puberty age, school functions as the primary stage for peer relationships and at the same time, becomes the scene of competition with class and school mates.
Why is it at the primary school age that competing strengthens?
At the school age, in every community, at school and outside of it - girls-boys, teacher-student, father-mother-child, among friends - there is a hierarchical system developing, which is based on certain expectations and requires adaptation from all of its members.
School life creates a lot of opportunities for competing, the starting point of which can be grades, academic achievements, the attention and approval of the teacher, the love of peers, popularity and the need to belong somewhere.
Which age group is characterised by competing the most?
We compete in every life situation. As kids for love, for attention, as adults for successful relationships, at the workplace for an adequate position and I could go on forever. All age groups compete; the only difference is in the goals they set and the methods and forms of competition.
Maybe we can say that at the kindergarten-primary school age, when a stable self-awareness has not yet developed, competing can cause more emotional problems. There is a lot of competition at secondary school and university, where the challenges are constant and are almost conditioned for everyday life. At certain stages in life or where and when the expectations are big towards the individual or child because of the influence of the environment, the tendency to compete can strengthen.
Which sex competes more?
The high level of testosterone, as well as the traits that derive from the sexual characteristics of men, make men more pre-disposed to compete. This can be traced back to biological and evolutionary reasons: in most cultures, or even in the animal world, they have always been the ones who have had to fight for the female, they have been responsible for the safety of their loved ones and they have had to protect their family members.
Does competing have positive or negative consequences?
It has both. However, its positive effects can only take place if accompanied by certain controlling factors. Therefore, it is very important to keep an eye on our children and give them sufficient feedback. Let's help children and young people to fulfil their potentials in an adequate way! Successful participation in competitions and competing is not only a question of knowledge and expertise. Being successful depends on how people deal with competition situations and how much routine they have in it and of course, self-awareness is indispensable as well.
Do schools have a role in preparing children and young people for competing?
Yes. Schools both in Hungary and in the European Union play an important role in it. However, the approach and the methods differ. Certain surveys show that in Hungary, teachers deem competitiveness rather negative in society and associate it with aggression. In Ireland, Finland and England, most teachers - in accordance with an older research - agree that students must be prepared for the competition that they will face later on in life. However, few people would agree that schools really manage to fulfil this role.
What do you think about competitiveness among siblings?
It is important to know that it is completely natural, but of course, control is necessary here, too. Our children compete for our love, attention, even when they are adults. It is very important to protect our children from becoming one another's rivals. If we would like to avoid this from happening, we should spend enough time with them and devote enough attention to them. We should not compare them to one another, since they have their independent characters, different personalities and habits. We should strengthen the acceptance between them and emphasize that they are all good at something different.
Are there any physical signs or manifestations of competitiveness in children? How can parents recognise these?
Competing children are unusually vulnerable, they take everything to heart. They react to everything in a sensitive way and they find it hard to deal with certain events. Sometimes they are tense, irritable, grouchy or defiant and can even seem hostile.
Is there a proper method to deal with competing and competition situations - for children, teenagers and for parents?
The key words are self-awareness, positive feedback and open communication.
One of the most important functions of competing is the gaining of correct self-evaluation, which is made possible by the process of social comparison. It is important for everybody to be able to evaluate what kind of inner resources they have. As we develop, our communication, skills and abilities change. As long as we are aware of our own competences, we can use this knowledge in our approach to competition situations.
From the part of parents and teachers, positive feedback is essential. It is important to develop those qualities in children which help them achieve success. They must be taught how to use those abilities in order to become more successful. Besides, communication within the family is indispensable. I must know my child and I must know how they react, what tools I can use to help them and what serves their development.
Written by Zsófia Tupi
Translated by Judit Molnár