Using Competition to Motivate Kids

There is a reason why our website is called and not  We are sailing the wild seas of life with three young kids and we do not know which way to go but together we will figure it out.  We do not know what is best for our family all the time and we certainly do not know what is best for other peoples families but it is healthy to discuss these topics before deciding which route to take (Sorry I don’t know how to make reference to the ‘Navigation’ part of our name without using corny clichés).  Lisa and I have very similar core values but luckily we are different people with perhaps the biggest difference being our level of competitiveness.  I enjoy being competitive and Lisa avoids it at all cost.  Competition can be used as a motivator with kids but there is debate in our home about when (and if) it should be used.

Picture this:  It has been a long day and the kids are not being cooperative.  They are grumpy and tired, and it is time to go to bed, but they just want to play and fight with each other.  Lisa is downstairs trying to explain logically why they need to listen get ready for bed but that is not working.  I ride in on my white kayak (more west coasty then a horse) to save the day.  “OK who can get their pyjamas on first gets to choose the first story to read…ready…set…GO!!!”  It works.  I can get them upstairs and ready to bed in no-time by using just a dash of competition.  But is this a good thing? This strategy can bite me back in a hurry since with three kids I have to deal with two non-winners (I will never call my kids losers).  It is a very effective tool but do we really we want our kids to grow up being ultra competitive.

There are many debates on how we should use competition as a motivator for kids.  In many cases school and sporting activities for young kids have tried to remove a lot of the competitive aspects to focus on participation and team work. Young kids especially take winning and losing very personally and it can really affect them if they never seem to win.  If kids get too worried about losing all the time then they may not see the point of participating at all if they feel they have no chance of winning  (Lisa knows this first hand).  I tend to think that kids are also smart enough to see through efforts to let them win.  Our kids have genetics working against them if they want to be the strongest and fastest and we do not want them to stop being active just because they are not the best.  Competition creates a pressure to succeed and do we need to add more stress to our kids?

On the other hand people argue that we should not remove competition as a motivating factor for kids as it will help them prepare for the pressure of adulthood.  Competition is a reality in our society and the most successful** people are often the most competitive.  Our society rewards people who are the best at what they do and shouldn’t we try and give our kids the tools needed to be the best or at least pretty good?

So which side will the FamilyNavigation boat be steered towards?  Once again we will probably take a middle course with a lot of side to side movement as our ideas change over time.  We really want our kids to have a fun and carefree childhood so we do not want to add a lot of pressure to their daily lives.  Competition is also something that should not be avoided as it can provide a lot of fun.  Some of my best memories as a child were being competitive.  Each summer while spending two months on a small sailboat my father and I would have running competitions around fishing and cribbage and each year champions were crowned.  My dad hated to lose so it definitely was not rigged for me to always win.  I cannot remember who won most often but I do remember those competitions as being a lot of fun.  I played soccer for 10 years when I was a kid and I have 1 trophy to show for it.  The teams I was on taught me a lot about losing but it was still a lot of fun playing with a team and trying to win.  This is what I am going to focus on when our kids get into competitive activities.  For example I remember playing a soccer game for the regional championship against a far better team.  They had beaten us soundly in the past and this final game should have gone the same way.  We didn’t win the game, we lost it in a penalty shootout, but did we ever play well.  It was our best game of the season and one of the most enjoyable games I ever played.  If I just cared about winning then I would have considered that game a failure and no fun at all.  This is the balancing act we will try and play with our kids.  Go and compete but make sure winning isn’t the only reason you play.  I think it is OK to motivate our kids with competition occasionally but when I do I am going to try to make the competition as much fun as possible so that it is the enjoyment of it that becomes the the motivation to compete and not the results.

** I cringe using the word successful in this context as it goes against many themes on  In this sentence success is implied to refer to someone who has wealth and/or power, but of course we also believe that the person who lives a relaxed and healthy modest lifestyle can be seen as more successful than the multi millionaire who works 16 hour days.

  2 comments for “Using Competition to Motivate Kids

  1. Pearl
    July 15, 2010 at 9:38 am

    Another well written and thoughtful article, Martin. Thanks. You should submit pieces like this to the local papers, I think many parents would identify with your thoughts and observations.

  2. Tanya
    July 14, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    I was just thinking that the “winner” could choose which of the other two “non-winners” to choose the story book for the evening. That would also incorporate fairness and equality if done properly. State the rules out point blank like you do anyway, and switch it up a bit! That will also make the one who is more likely to win more often listen a little bit harder to the rules each time, too. I don’t know. It could work. Wouldn’t hurt to try if you are concerned about the competitive streak becoming a “win-at-all-costs” streak.


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