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Child's play?

Competitions and grades enable children to learn to compare themselves with others very early. And the parents' expectations are often high. The Kiel business ethicist, Junior Professor Menusch Khadjavi, investigated the impact of parental ambitions, and advises a more relaxed approach.


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Run faster, jump higher, throw further - the Bundes­jugendspiele (Federal Youth Games) are a challenge for school children every year. But while the sporty ones can look forward to certificates, the certificate of participation for those less talented can cause grief. “Our society is strongly geared towards competition," knows Menusch Khadjavi, Junior Professor of Business Ethics at the CAU and the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW). As an economist, our focus on competition is one of his main research topics: "What decisions do people make in certain situations, and why?" The answers to this question will help to predict how people behave in the future.

According to Khadjavi, whether people gladly take on competition, or rather shy away from it, is also influenced by their parents. Although genes play a role, the research literature clearly shows: “We are not born with certain preferences. We orientate ourselves based on society," said Khadjavi. In a study carried out with his colleague, Professor Andreas Nicklisch from the University of Applied Sciences HTW Chur in Switzerland, he investigated the influence of mothers and fathers in more detail. They have now published their results in the "Journal of Economic Psychology".

What is the effect of parental ambitions on children? In their experiment carried out in 2012, Khadjavi and Nicklisch gave 84 kindergarten children in Hamburg and Lower Saxony two tasks. The three to six year old children had to race 30 meters, while the researchers recorded their time. The boys and girls knew that they would get a reward for their efforts. The rewards were age-appropriate toys such as crayons, toy cars, street chalk, modelling clay, stickers, etc. In the first race, all participants received a gift: they received a larger gift if they were faster than 50 percent of the group, and a smaller, cheaper gift if they were in the slower half of the group. In the second race, the children then had to decide. Did they want to compete against their own time? Then they could expect at least a small gift. Or did they want to compete against the time of another child? The winner would then receive a large gift as well as a small gift. The loser would receive nothing.

The research team had previously obtained the parents’ consent. In doing so, the parents answered various questions, including about their household income and orientation towards competition, for example, how important the sporting and professional success of their offspring is to them. Here, it was noticeable that parents who assessed their income as higher than average, displayed less ambition. “I was not surprised by this result," said Khadjavi. “Parents with this social background can develop a more relaxed approach. Even if their child does not put in a huge effort, he or she will probably still do well."

The research team also noticed that slower children of ambitious parents preferred to compete with other children instead of their own time - and often lost. "The children entered into a contest, even if their chances of winning looked worse," observed Khadjavi. In an experiment like this with toys, the consequences may not be so bad. But what about on the sports field or job market? Khadjavi: "In reality, losers are not treated kindly. Frequent failure can be frustrating and discouraging. It is completely normal to test your own limits every now and again. But it is healthiest to know your strengths and to select appropriate competitions."

Khadjavi therefore recommends a "moderate degree” of competitiveness - also for the adults: "I have the impression that parents nowadays are more uptight about their children’s achievements. They ask themselves very early on, whether their child will do A-levels and go to university. And they are more sensitive regarding the choice of school, and closely examine the migration or socio-economic background of the other pupils." The question is then whether we want to be such a competitive society. Khadjavi advises parents not to pass on their zeal for competition to their children, because: “Creativity and fun are essential for success."

Author: Raissa Maas

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