At science fairs and soccer games, who benefits when kids compete?

April 1, 2013 No Comments »
At science fairs and soccer games, who benefits when kids compete?

When we were expecting our first child, a friend who was also the principal of a very successful Montessori school, told my wife and I to make sure “to be there for your child, but never make her feel she has to be there for you.” Wise advice. Certainly easier said than done.

My friend’s words of wisdom surfaced recently when I connected two different events: My daughter’s science fair project and a decision by Soccer Ontario to eliminate soccer standings below U12. What’s the link? Well, both involve parents.

How science fairs went from fun to frantic

Like most around the country, my daughter’s science fair is a competition. In the end, the students get a grade, but most importantly, a panel of judges declares one project as “the best.” And this changes everything.

A school activity that is supposed to promote student discovery and enjoyment of science becomes a source of pride for some of the parents. As one mom said as she went on about how many hours she had helped her daughter on her project, “I hope we win.”

This statement describes the emotional involvement that some parents display when their child competes. It’s certainly not isolated to our small school’s science fair. It is everywhere kids compete, and it was in the spotlight recently when the Ontario Soccer Association announced that it intends to mandate the removal of standings from the leagues of children below age 12.

Are kids really competing? Or are parents?

In the flurry of reactions to the announcement, it is important to ask the only question that matters: Whose competition is it?

Are science fairs, soccer games, and dance and violin competitions designed for the enjoyment of kids and to promote their acquisition of skills? Or are these contests designed so that the parents can experience intense emotions?

For me, this is the real question, because as Active for Life’s Jim Grove pointed out, kids will compete no matter what. But they will compete on their own terms.

Kids don’t need help to keep score

Kids will know who won the game even if you don’t keep score. Kids will compare who can throw the ball the furthest and they will know who is the best musician. But unlike adults, they won’t dwell on who won. A short while after the game or science fair finishes, they simply move on to the next adventure.

A Pinewood Derby track in Philadelphia (Bruce Andersen, 2008)This became clear to me as I listened to one of the funniest shows on radio, Car Talk. It’s a talk-radio program that provides repair advice to car owners. In this case, a mom had called to ask – tongue-in-cheek – for tricks to help her son win the Pinewood Derby.

The derby is a contest for cub scouts across America that has been going on since 1953. For 40 years, kids (and their parents) have built wooden cars and raced them on an inclined track to see which one goes the fastest.

This was a follow-up call from the mom, who told the hosts that their tricks had not helped. In fact, her son lost the derby. But she had a revelation. She described a similar competition where prizes weren’t awarded. Instead, the kids just lined up to let their cars rip down the track.

As the host pointed out, the kids probably knew which cars were fastest. But it didn’t matter to them because they were having fun watching their own car, made by themselves, zip down the track, over and over.

It goes back to what my friend the school principal told me years ago: we should make sure we are there for our kids and not the other way around.

So when you take a position on an issue of such importance, like the decision to remove league standings for kids 12 and under, think of what’s in it for your kid. Remember that it’s not what you get out of the competition, but how your kids will benefit and grow from the experience.

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What do you think?