The Peril of Praise

At one point or another, we all feel the terrible aftertaste of envy in our social relationships. We see the venal colleague who gets ahead or the layabout relative who repeatedly falls into success.

The resulting envy and jealousy is all too human, as Shakespeare well understood. Still, we don't have to reinforce the traits in children.  

Consider the classic parental headache - sibling rivalry. Siblings get jealous of the attention the other receives. They become intensely concerned with equity. They fight. This is all natural.

But we parents all too readily add fuel to the fire. We pit the children against each other and declare one the winner. We visibly reward the child who is on "good behavior" and punish the child who is "acting out." We allow them to fight with each other without intervention. We may even ask them, "Why can't you be more like your brother?"

Want two children who hate each other? Do these things.

(Need more evidence? Read Alfie Kohn's excellent No Contest: The Case Against Competition.)

No Simple Solution

Here's the really tricky part. We may not even be aware we're setting kids up for failed relationships. Imagine a parent who, with the purest of intentions, regularly praises her oldest child for his math skills.

Does the always alert younger brother understand that the intention is to build the older brother's confidence and sense of accomplishment or does he interpret the message to be "you're never going to be as good as your brother"?

And what if it is the latter? Should the parent forgo the praise? Doesn't the older child deserve the kudos? 

To praise or not to praise, that is the question -- a simple question without a simple "yes/no" answer. Ironically, our culture is rife with social rules, linguistic queues, non-verbal tics, and more emphasizing duality as the norm. It's either victory or defeat, right or wrong, good or bad. We learn this as kids and live by it as adults

Music Chairs Isn't Fun

Teaching kids that there are winners and losers is so deeply engrained in our culture, it feels nearly impossible to root out. Think about that most benign of children's birthday party games -- musical chairs.

The very thought that musical chairs could be harmful may feel absolutely ridiculous -- the kind of hippy dippy nonsense destroying our world. And, true enough, to an adult observer, the game is a kind of old timey fun. 

But let's imagine you're not an adult watching the amusing, chaotic scramble. Instead, you are a five years old playing the game.

You're feeling a bit awkward as you nervously walk to the music. With each step, you steel your nerves. Suddenly, the music stops. You lurch toward the closest chair and crash into the seat, edging your best friend out.

The positive skills taught through the game must outweigh the other, especially in their interactions with each other.

Everyone laughs and yells your friend's name. You laugh too, but it's fake. You're a bit sorry your friend didn't get a chair, but gosh you are so much more thankful it isn't you!

A chair is removed. The music begins again. The anticipation builds. You get the hang of the game and intentionally hesitate with each step so that you are always in front of a chair, never in the middle.

More chairs are removed as your friends join the crowd of losers. You realize suddenly that there are only a few chairs left. You're starting to think about winning. Your confidence is high.

The music stops again, and you lurch for the nearest empty seat only to find that there isn't one. Everyone is laughing, and your face burns in humiliation as everyone is pointing at you and yelling.

You smile good naturedly, but inside your stomach is churning. You join the group of losers, and once you sit down, you are immeasurably relieved in the solidarity. Your best friend sits beside you, and you are equal again. You are both losers.

The Lessons We Teach

So is musical chairs destroying our children? Should we toss it and other competitive games out because it might hurt someone's feelings?

Not at all. Competition is natural and has pushed humanity to great heights -- funding the space race and Renaissance -- and great horrors -- fueling war and exploitation. 

By exposing children to healthy competition, we can arm them with the social skills they need to handle victory and defeat with grace and courtesy and guide them away from internalizing -- or worse yet, replicating -- its darker side.

But teaching healthy competition means being aware of the implicit lessons the game or competition is teaching. The positive skills taught through the game must outweigh the other, especially in their interactions with each other.

Consider what is learned from musical chairs.

  • It's okay to put winning above friendship.
  • Rooting for others to lose is socially acceptable.
  • Losing is humiliating.

The answer isn't necessarily to toss musical chairs, but we may want to do it differently. We want children to value their human bonds! We want them to root for each other! We want them to feel good about themselves! What would a version of the game look like that fostered those lessons?

We Make the Rules

The other day, our family got out a bingo-style game the kids had received for Christmas. The kids were excited to play it, but instead of reading the rules for determining a winner, they made up their own rules, making it a cooperative game.

We each used more than one bingo card so we would have lots of pictures to look at. We enjoyed matching the picture cards to the pictures on our bingo cards. We stacked them up when we got extra pieces.

When another player needed a piece, we noticed. It was the perfect opportunity to practice skills like generosity and what Montessori called "grace and courtesy" like this: "My brother needs a bat! I have this extra bat. Would you like to have it?"

Competition was alive and well in that moment -- the drive to complete the puzzle. But so was the cooperation. Not long after the game ended, the boys were back at it - arguing about who got the bigger apple.

The game didn't end the sibling rivalry, but it did reinforce a critical lesson. People may disagree, but when one wins, we all win.