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How to Teach Children to Lose by Winning

Posted: 12/08/11 01:04 PM ET

In his brilliant book No Contest: The Case against Competition, author Alfie Kohn defines competition as the process by which for me to win, you must lose.

Our children's lives are filled with the competitive experience. Most of their activities called "sports" are pedagogies in competition. Although we teach them that a real sports person is a "good loser," we all know that the truth was revealed by the great football coach Vince Lombardi, who said, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."

Our children's video games are all about winning -- war to car racing.

In schools where our children are graded on curves or continuums, the message is, "I'm not good enough unless I get an A. Then I am a winner and I can see all the others behind me -- the losers." In fact in order to get an A, others must perform poorly.

When our young people move on to college, the competitive culture is reinforced as they learn that the real hero of higher education is the "winningest coach" -- people like Joe Paterno.

The college classroom is a daily pressure cooker where an A is the winning recipe. All lower grades need an explanation on your resume.

Finally, having been immersed in the competitive idea for 21 years, our young people matriculate into the working world as bona fide members of the competitive culture. They understand that livelihood is all about competition. In their work, advancement is winning. Staying in place is losing, even if the work might be very satisfying.

And after work their recreation is usually their enjoyment of winners beating losers. Whether playing or watching sports, the name of the game is the same: who wins?

For entertainment, they are treated to normal non-competitive activities converted into exercises in winning or losing. Cooking becomes a competition between chefs. Making clothing becomes a competition among designers. Dancing becomes a competition among non-professional dancers. Even losing weight becomes a competition among the obese. In many of these competitive "entertainments," the loser is publicly humiliated and removed from the "fun." Expanding the domestic competitive culture is the growing perception that the nation's future depends on winning the race against China.

The result of our win/lose society is a deep belief in the myth that competition is the proven method for achieving efficiency and excellence. The truth of the matter is the opposite. Alfie Kohn's No Contest is the primary text that provides the empirical evidence that cooperation "beats" competition in most of the important areas of our lives. His data clearly shows that people who collaborate are more productive, learn more, enjoy playing more, and have better character and interpersonal relationships.

Kohn explains the failure of competition as the inability to recognize that trying to do well and trying to beat others are two different things. Cooperation is the context for each of us to value doing well for ourselves and others. Competition is the context for each of us who believes that doing well results from beating others.

There is a ready-made, accessible context for reintroducing ourselves and our children to a life of cooperation. It is our own neighborhood. There, the possibilities for a good life depend upon cooperation rather than competition. A neighbor is not someone you beat. The word signifies a friend with whom we share a local community. And community is not a place where we gather together to beat each other and create lots of losers and one winner. The neighborly way is described in our book, The Abundant Community.

So when we admit that most of us don't really know our neighbors, we are revealing that the primary site for genuine cooperation is absent from our lives. And, perhaps the reason for this unusual lack of relationships is that the only way many of us know how to act is in a world that creates one winner and lots and lots of losers.


John McKnight and Peter Block blog on parenting, family and neighborhood issues at their website www.abundantcommunity.com. John is emeritus professor of education and social policy and co-director of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University. He is the co-author of Building Communities from the Inside Out and the author of The Careless Society. He has been a community organizer and serves on the boards of several national organizations that support neighborhood development. Peter is founder of Designed Learning. They are coauthors of The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods (Berrett-Koehler).