close ad

Why Kids Are So Competitive -- and How Parents Can Teach Fairness

Competition in School

When Katie, from a Chicago suburb, was 10, she wanted to play the saxophone because she thought it was cool. But a classmate learning the oboe had a different motivation. "The friend's mom picked the less popular instrument so her daughter would stand out from the crowd when applying to college," says Katie's mother, Laura. "The girls were still in elementary school!" Borba isn't surprised: "Building a resume used to be a high school task," she says. "But now even first-graders are being programmed to have an edge."

Some schools are fueling anxiety with Web sites where teachers update grades daily, enabling students and parents to track them. Moms and dads can use these sites to stay informed -- or to push kids relentlessly. And even traditional subject-based competitions like spelling bees and history contests are now part of the spiking pressure -- there are far more contests now, with more kids expected to participate and at younger ages.

A recent phenomenon alarming experts and parents alike is the growing "extended time" trend. "I've had a number of requests recently from parents who want me to make a false diagnosis of ADHD or a learning disability so their child can get additional time on tests or extra tutoring, or be placed in smaller classes," says Ron Zodkevitch, MD, a child psychiatrist and member of Family Circle's Health Advisory Board. The practice became common in 2003, after the College Board announced that it no longer would report whether time accommodations were made for students with disabilities. "Parents are using unethical methods on their child's behalf," observes Borba, "and skewing results for everyone else."

How Kids Are Losing Out

  • Paralyzing anxiety. A recent Associated Press/MTV survey found that school is the main source of stress for 13- to 17-year-olds. "Some kids hook their self-esteem to their successes and failures," says Grolnick. "If they do poorly on a math test, they think, 'I'm terrible at math, and I'm a terrible person.'"
  • Cheating. Ninety-five percent of high schoolers admit to participating in "questionable behavior" while doing schoolwork, say surveys by Rutgers University Business School in New Jersey. In a 2006 study of 36,122 high school students by the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles, 59 percent agreed that "successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating."
  • Loss of learning. In a study Grolnick conducted of 91 fifth-graders, kids who were told to focus on the results of a test were less likely to remember the information later.