Comparison, competition, socialisation, natural learning and parenting

“The thing I struggle with is the competitiveness. Everything seems to be measured and tested and then it makes you feel like you are failing because you are not at the same level as someone else. Tania

When my children were young this bugged me too Tania, so I started to think about it. At the heart of competitiveness is comparison and at the heart of that is wondering what other people think of us. I worked out that this is essential to growth and development: it is socialisation, pure and simple. What other people talk about when using the word socialisation is that thing that happens at school and then the workplace, which is only a subset of the whole socialisation process and which has been corrupted to suit a particular goal, rather than a set of holistic goals.

Socialisation is part of the social development process. One of our basic needs as humans is to 'belong': without a social group we die. We can't look after ourselves as babies, so we need parents. That's our first socialising process: learning to work with our parents so that our needs are met so that we survive and thrive. And we work overtime, smiling and imitating them, making sure we 'fit in' as best we can with the family culture so that we'll continue to be nurtured.

As we grow we meet other people important to our survival: family members. And then friends, other care providers, strangers... With each of them we need to make sure we will survive the encounter, which means working out what is needed from us in order to stay safe, protected and hopefully nurtured. Bit by bit we learn that it is important to modify our behaviour in order to get our needs met. That's socialisation at work. Learning how to belong and operate within social groups.

Comparison is one of the tools in our socialisation tool box. Humans are more alike than different but we're primed to notice differences because that's the direction from which threats usually arrive! And our social training continues to enhance this primal survival need (think of all those 'spot the difference puzzles' you did as a child!) As we get to know each other we naturally notice the differences; some differences work to meet our needs more efficiently so we experiment with them and adopt them if they fit or work.

I watched three year old April become transformed after playgroup as she took on the personality of her friend: for an hour she was Shawn, imitating his movement, his voice, his behaviour. The likeness was uncanny and disturbing. She'd been sufficiently impressed by him to 'play' him for a while. Instead of panicking (Shawn was a handful!) I observed carefully. April didn't adopt his characteristics and behaviour wholesale, she picked the bits that suited her developing personality and which worked to meet her needs. Shawn was more assertive than April: I'm sure 'playing' him helped her find her assertive voice.

We all do this: mimic the behaviour and actions of others we value. It's part of our cultural heritage and something we value highly. We're always telling our youth how important it is to find 'great' mentors, heroes we can look up to and emulate, etc. We compare ourselves to them, spot the difference, evaluate the difference and see if we can apply that knowledge to enhancing our lives, becoming the people we want to be.

Where does all this go astray? By being told we need to become people we 'should' or 'ought' to be, rather than who we already are and will naturally become! Reward and punishment become externalised: from birth children reward and punish themselves naturally as part of the growth process and it isn't a big deal because it is natural and necessary. They don't need external motivators: their sense of well-being is an authentic guide to what needs to be done to survive and thrive. Bit by bit though we erode this inner guide, eventually shattering their confidence in their ability to tell right from wrong, appropriate from inappropriate, what works from what doesn't work to meet their needs.

We've been programmed to do this because it is easy to control and manage populations of people if they don't have confidence in their own natural learning abilities.

Comparison is natural and makes sense. Competition is natural and makes sense too. Children inherently know and understand the nature of competition. It is an extremely effective and valuable learning tool. From birth they compete against their existing ability in order to grow: they naturally take risks. These risks are calculated: from their comparisons they have a reasonable idea of what would happen if they did this or thought that... and then they need to test their assumptions. “I can jump this puddle. My friend can jump a big puddle. How far can I jump?” Jumping is a game – that's what we as parents see, but the child is growing, testing, learning, comparing and competing.

Bring extrinsic reward and punishment (once extrinsic reward is established the absence of reward becomes an effective punishment) into the picture and children stop performing to grow and develop naturally but to do it to get the reward or avoid the punishment. It is no longer centred on their needs: it has stopped being a holistic socialisation process. It is now about pleasing others in order to belong to the group. Natural comparison and competition is corrupted to placate the needs of others. And these needs are often assumed rather than real: few people know what they need, though many can tell you want they want and it is usually based on what others want... what the popular trend is currently dictating as 'need'.

As parents we don't need to shun comparisons or competition but we do need to understand them and how they work to help us survive and thrive. They are some of the best tools we have in our learning toolbox. We'd feel silly picking up a spanner and trying to use it on a screw: spanners are for bolts! We need to use the tools in our learning toolboxes in the most efficient and effective manner, the way they are meant to be used.

Downplay comparison and competition when they work against the need. Subvert them to cooperative behaviour and thinking. Celebrate comparison and competition when they work to help our children grow and develop their unique abilities and personalities. We need to protect our children from endemic and pervasive corrupted comparisons and competition. Children innately know the difference and if we champion them they will happily revert to using both tools appropriately, what works efficiently and effectively for them to achieve their personal goals.

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