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Competition and Cooperation Feed Each Other

By Jeffrey M. Bowen

Years ago at my elementary school, we used to play marbles at

recess. The rules were a variation on pool, and the winner took
all. What made this running competition unique was that our
teacher, Miss Magnusson, a towering woman of Nordic heritage,
loved to play too. She won more than her share, and kept her
winnings in a large sock. At the end of the day, she always made
us line up to shake hands with her. She told us this was to show
there were no hard feelings.

Now I realize that Miss Magnusson was watching how we

interacted as we played the game. She was subtly guiding our
social adjustment. Her handshake was about sportsmanship.
Early on, we found that competition arouses great passions. It
tempts us to think in terms of winning or losing, good versus bad,
and we/they orientations.

What is more, I learned that competitions live by rules. Too much

creativity or free thinking earns penalties because it may risk
unfair advantages and muddy purposes. Outdoing others is
fruitless unless everyone is doing the same thing. Also, I found
that cooperation is built into not just team sports, but into nearly
every classroom endeavor. Nowadays this is often called project-
based learning.

As high school students, we vied for grades and test scores, girls
attentions, contest prizes, and ultimately for college admission.
Cooperation paid off as well. For instance, without regular help
from my math-savvy girlfriend, I never could have made it
through algebra. Thinking back, I realize that the key to success
in school life was figuring out when and how to compete or
cooperate to reach a goal. I learned that winning and losing are
not a zero-sum game, but that both can produce a positive and
lasting result. Teachers and parents alike can help children realize
About 30 years ago, Alfie Kohns research provided telling
insights. Cooperation, he observed, nurtures high achievement
and performance, while competition among children can generate
anxiety and low self-
esteem. Nonetheless, we find or invent competitive contests for
almost any activity or skill. Think of the Last Survivor or the
Great Cook-Off. In almost any field, Americans see competition
as the ideal way to measure self-worth or success. Our cultural
obsession is to win.

Kohn distinguishes between intentional and structural

competition. Intentions, he says, are the real villain because they
compel us to be number one regardless of the psychological cost
to others or ourselves. Sound familiar?

My point is that competition and cooperation are both learned,

although I believe our personalities may predispose us more
toward one than the other. From our earliest years on, these two
motives intertwine and share a big impact on youthful attitudes
and destinies.

I urge us to seek consistency. It is no small task. We teach

children to compete on teams and to subordinate individual
interests to those of the group, but we may contradict this by
glorifying individual efforts and unique performances. Trophies
may be awarded for teamwork, but scholarships are reserved for
the individual and not the group. We are immensely entertained
by athletic contests. We depend on grading as the best measure
of academic accomplishments. However, we bemoan the
displacement of learning goals and the psychological scars these
features can create. The winning record of the high schools
football team thrills us, yet the bullying that results from social
competition may horrify us.

Competition and cooperation are by no means opposites; they

feed one another. We can help our children gain perspective by
showing them that success and failure are not truly about keeping
score. Neither winning nor losing should be as important than
how the game is played.