The Case Against Competition

How We Lose the Race to Win

Some amazing things happen when groups are asked to play this game. As you might imagine, many people (children and adults) immediately try to arm wrestle and "beat" their opponent. Some, however, realize that the rules are not those of arm wrestling, but of something else, and they quickly understand that cooperation will get them more chocolate. When the game ends and the participants are asked how many times the back of someone's hand touched the top of the table, the numbers will usually start out very low--one, two, five. Then, those who cooperated will call out their numbers--twenty-five, forty, seventy-two! Seventy-two Hershey's Kisses. Often, others will cry foul, and accuse the cooperative ones of "cheating." Once the rules are repeated, though, they finally understand the simple, cooperative alternative that never occurred to them: had they defined their goal, they would have seen the value of collaboration over competition. Almost every group I have ever introduced to this game wants to play it again as soon as they understand this insight about cooperation. They are just aching to try it out
. . . and get more chocolate.

One of our most important jobs as parents is helping our children learn to make reasonable choices. But even more important is to help train our children's vision to recognize all of their available choices, to see alternatives that a deeply ingrained competitive mindset will tend to filter out and ignore. Even when our culture, our impulses, and our memories tell us that competition is the only option, we need to look harder. We must teach our children to look, and look again before deciding on their options.

Only with this keen vision will our children become adept at winnowing out mutually beneficial solutions to problems, and practiced at the art of collaboration. Competition for its own sake is a learned response--and it can be unlearned. We can help our children find ways to work together for common goals. We have examples to achieve this and the creativity to teach it. Our children, for their part, have the ability and the desire to learn. It may be one of the ways we can offer them a better world to live in. Isn't that what we all really want for the future? Perhaps in that kind of future, we will see more films that suggest: "It's always worth playing when no one has to win or lose."


Charles Numrich is the director of Creative Theatre Unlimited, a St. Paul nonprofit arts organization focusing on community-building through the arts. His essay, "Gimme Bread," appeared in the November, 1998 issue of Minnesota Parent.



No Contest, Alfie Kohn; Houghton Mifflin, Co., 1986

Creative Conflict Resolution: More than 200 Activities for Keeping Peace in the Classroom, Bill Kreidler, Scott, Foresman and Co., Glenview, IL, 1984

Elementary Perspectives 1: Teaching Concepts of Peace and Conflict, Bill Kreidler; Educators for Social Responsibility, Cambridge, MA, 1990

Resolving Conflicts Creatively, Educators for Social Responsibility, New York City Board of Education.

Project CREATE Teaching Guide, Metro Educational Cooperative Service Unit, St. Paul, MN, 1994

Spinning Tales, Weaving Hope, Ed Brody, et. al., editors, New Society Publishers, Philadelphia, PA, 1992

Living Tapestries, Charles Numrich; Creative Theatre Unlimited, St. Paul, MN, 1990

The Interaction Ritual, Erving Goffman, Anchor Books, Garden City, NY, 1967

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