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Have Your Say: How can we teach our kids about healthy competition?

Craig and Marc Kielburger founded Free The Children and Me to We. Their biweekly Brain Storm column taps experts and readers for solutions to social issues.

We were stunned to read that a Canadian soccer league removed the ball from their games so that nobody could score – and more to their point, nobody would lose. Players would kick around a pretend ball instead. "If you can imagine you're good at soccer," the league spokeswoman says, "then you are."

The joke is on us. Of course, like thousands of Canadians (and The Washington Times) we'd just been duped by a satirical CBC Radio sketch. But the absurd concept poking fun at the "every kid is a winner" trend got us thinking about the line between teaching kids about healthy competition and removing competition altogether.

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The opposite extreme of "ball-less soccer" is the antics of abrasive hockey parents, such as the Winnipeg couple who were recently barred from watching their eight-year-old play for three years after starting a locker-room fist-fight with opposing coaches.

Thankfully, most parents fall somewhere in the middle of these approaches. We don't want to see our children cheat at board games, argue with referees over goals or teachers over grades, pout when they lose, or brag when they win. And we don't want them to invest all their self-esteem and identity in their athletic, academic or other competitive performance.

There are good arguments for keeping kids' play co-operative during the early years. They learn how to work together and see a situation through the perspective of others, and pursue "win-win" solutions to challenges. But there are also legitimate developmental benefits to competition, including building the drive to do one's best and learning to accept disappointing outcomes. And there are too many dog-eat-dog situations in life to shelter our kids from competition forever.

This week's question: What are your best strategies for imparting healthy competitive attitudes to kids?

THE EXPERTS

Barry H. Schneider, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Ottawa

"Competition can be helpful or harmful depending on what drives it. Parents can guide their children toward healthy ways of competing by praising their children's hard work and improvement over previous performance. They may do harm if they make children feel that they must defeat others to win their parents' approval."

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Jessica Fraser-Thomas, associate professor of health science at York University in Toronto

"Sport is ripe with teachable moments – tough losses, spectacular victories, 'bad' ref calls – that parents can use to engage their child in meaningful conversations. Help them identify their emotions, ask them challenging questions, encourage them to consider others' perspectives, and share personal stories to essentially be a facilitator and model of their learning and growth."

Lorraine Lafrenière, chief executive officer of the Coaching Association of Canada in Ottawa

"Coaches and parents can openly communicate the expected behaviours of athletes, and of one another: respect for oneself, teammates, opposition and officials; use of acceptable language; and how and when to address a concern. Be consistent in promoting, exhibiting and upholding the standards that are set."

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