The moment we set eyes on our kids when they get out of school, it’s understandable that the first thing we blurt out is: “How was your day?”
Really that’s become code for what we actually mean, which is, “How well did you do on your Math test?” “Did you score a goal in sport?”‘ and “Have you done better than the rest of your classmates?”
After all, parents today are conditioned to believe that ALL competition is healthy — and that by checking our kids are doing their best at everything — at every moment — we are safeguarding their futures.
What else is a responsible parent to do?
Constantly we are told that economic uncertainty means our children must work harder, and from an earlier age, to get the excellent exam results, which will lead to top universities which will land them the secure jobs.
That has meant that somewhere along the way that when we tell our kids to “do your best,” we really mean: “Be the best.”
No wonder the most popular trend in kids’ movies and books are about other youngsters competing against each other in fights to the death, as in The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner.
This type of fiction speaks to them because it sums up how their lives feel to them — like a cut-throat contest orchestrated by adults. We don’t have to be living in a futuristic dictatorship for our kids to identify with Katniss and Peeta.
As the author of the new book, Taming the Tiger Parent, what I know is that we are not creating a generation of warriors, fit for the battle ahead.
Far from it. We are creating a generation of kids who are folding under the pressure. After all, by definition, most people who take part in competitions lose. As the testing starts earlier, this also makes for divided classrooms. Children who don’t do well right away tend to write themselves off early on.
The winners don’t find it any easier. As soon as the moment of victory passes, they become nervous about how they are going to stay on top. They find they have to continually compete to maintain their feelings of self-worth.
This pressure also damages our own relationships with the kids we love so much.
Children who worry about disappointing you, but who can not articulate that fear, distance themselves to spare themselves that pain.
Research also shows that tests don’t necessarily make kids’ minds any sharper.
This diversion of their brain power into worrying about whether other classmates are performing better means that it takes them longer to find the answer.
In short, competition increases stress in young children and sends the brain into fight-or-flight mode which short-circuits the ability of the intellectual brain to work.
Youngsters who are constantly tested before they are ready start to code subjects, like Math, as “dangerous.” Anxiety quite simply stops their brain from operating properly.
Instead of allowing kids to develop a secure base from which to develop safely, our panicking education systems are pulling the rug from under children’s feet before they’ve had a chance to plant both feet firmly on the ground.
Beyond that, raising children on the principle that it’s every man for himself out there makes the world feel like a very lonely place.
But is there any alternative? After all, isn’t competition an instinct?
Even though Charles Darwin never actually coined the phrase, we constantly talk of “survival of the fittest” as if it were the driving force behind society.
Anthropologists studying animal behaviour aren’t so sure because there are also plenty of examples of cooperation to be found in the animal kingdom.
While chimpanzees compete with each other and fight aggressively for limited food and mates, their close cousins, the bonobos, which live in more bountiful climes, care for each other’s children and work together to find food.
But as I argue in my book Taming the Tiger Parent: How to Put Your Child’s Well-Being First in a Competitive World, civilization itself is testament to the fact that we cooperate as a species much more than we compete.
Yet without questioning its worth, we have allowed ourselves to get swept up in the idea that all competition is “healthy” and have unquestioningly passed those pressures down to our children.
Yes, we must set standards for our children, but they should be for effort, not just attainment.
More than ever, we need to raise children on better principles than the need to beat everyone in their class, or for their school to beat every other in the district or their nation to defeat every other country on Earth.
In short, we have to be careful what we wish for. Mental equilibrium, not exam certificates, should be the measure of our success as parents.
Without it our children will achieve nothing.
So next time you see your child after school, don’t ask them what mark they got, how many goals they scored, or who they beat.
Ask them what whether they enjoyed their match, who they helped at school or what they learned today. In that moment, you will not only be making your child’s world a friendlier, less hostile place to be. You will sending them the message that it’s what they think and do that matters, not just who they vanquished.