We Should Use Cooperative - Not Competitive - Games with Children

Siblings fight. They are jealous of the attention the other receives, and they are intensely concerned with equity. This is natural. 

Whether intentional or not, we parents can easily set children up for failed sibling relationships. We may pit one child against another and declare one of them the winner. We visibly reward the child who is on "good behavior" and punish the child who is "acting out." 

We praise one child for his exceptional abilities in front of the other. We can 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 proof? Read Alfie Kohn's excellent No Contest: The Case Against Competition.)

Playing By Different Rules

At one point or another, all of us feel the terrible aftertaste of envy in our social relationships. We see the colleague who seems to get ahead unfairly or the relative who seems to fall into money. The resulting envy and jealousy, what Shakespeare called the "green-eyed monster," is all too human.

Though jealousy and envy may be built into our human DNA, we don't have to reinforce the traits. We can make choices in how we set up children to interact with one to place the emphasis not on winners and losers but on cooperative, mutually beneficial outcomes. 

Sounds hard? It is. Our culture is rife with social rules, linguistic queues, non-verbal tics, and more emphasizing why victory and defeat are the way of life. 

Take children's games, for example. Most games (for kids or adults) are designed to have one winner and one (or more) losers. Adults often see this as setting the stage for real life, as though saying "Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. Better to learn that in childhood."

True enough -- the world is neither fair nor equitable, but the more we reinforce the primacy of winners and losers, the harder it is to make things fairer and more equitable.

Musical Chairs is not Fun

Teaching kids about winners and losers is so deeply engrained in our culture, it feels nearly impossible to root out. Think about that most benign of birthday party games -- musical chairs. To the adult observers, the game is about a hilarious, chaotic scramble. 

Now Imagine you are five years old playing musical chairs. 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.

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. You're 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

Should we throw musical chairs and other competitive games out completely? No. Competition is deeply engrained in our culture. Plus, it's not entirely unhealthy. Competition can help push people to accomplish incredible things. Competition helped put humans on the moon and pushed the Medici's to fund some of the greatest art in Western history. 

But competition can also draw out some of humanity's worst tendencies - war, greed, avarice. Exposing children to healthy competition can arm them with the social skills they need to handle defeat with grace and courtesy and keep from internalizing -- or worst, replicating it in darker ways.

But teaching healthy competition means being aware of the lessons we teach children through games, rules, linguistic queues, and so forth. Even if a competitive game does not appear to affect our children negatively, let's take a look at what is learned from musical chairs.

  1. It's okay to put winning above friendship.
  2. Rooting for others to lose is how you win.
  3. Losing, and the ridicule that comes with it, makes you feel awful.

The positive skills competitive games teach must outweigh the more pernicious lessons children wind up internalizing, especially in their interactions with each other. We want children to value their human bonds! We want them to root for each other! We want them to feel good about themselves!

Trust me - there would be just as much laughter if you left all the chairs out for everyone and just played it "dance-freeze" style (which seems to be the modern version of the game anyway). How about other modifications? You could play different types of music each time to encourage quicker/slower movement. You could line the chairs up, form a circle, make a zigzag, space them out, crunch them all up together, dance on top of them, or crawl under them!

If everyone is included and just having fun together, there is no need for the resentment that comes with a crowd of losers.

We Make the Rules

The other day, our family got out a bingo-style game the kids had received for Christmas from relatives. The kids were excited to play it, but instead of reading the rules for determining a winner, we made up our 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. When one wins, we all win.