We have always examined competition from the point of view of how it can benefit a child’s development but we have never examined how individual children might respond to competition. We know that children are 50% what nature has given them and 50% what nurture has done for them. Even though there is not a lot we can do to change their nature, we can learn how to accommodate it and bring out its best.
Being Competitive – the Warriors and the Worriers
In Top Dog, Po Bronson shares how our genetic makeup affects our response to competition. Some of us are what he dubs “warriors”, while others are the “worriers”. Like everything else in life, there are both pros and cons to being a warrior or a worrier. The science of it all has been explained in Chapter 4 of Top Dog so I’m not going to go into it here. This is just the bottom line and the take home message based on what I have interpreted.
Warriors excel in the competitive environment because their brains respond well to the stress of it. In normal day to day, they may feel underwhelmed and unmotivated.
In contrast, the Worriers excel in normal day to day where their brains function best in the relatively calm environment. They are easily overwhelmed when the environment gets stressful.
What does this mean for our children?
- Warrior children may struggle in class but they thrive in competitive environments, like exams and sports competitions.
- Worrier children do well in class but they may fall apart when the environment becomes stressful. One study showed that a stressful exam environment can reduce test results by as much as 18 percent.
If you’ve ever wondered why some people seem to shake off unpleasant experiences more easily than others, this might be why. The warriors can withstand more trauma before they are overwhelmed by it. The worriers may only need one traumatic incident to scar them for life.
This might also explain why some of our children are more “sensitive” than others. They are genetically predisposed to that sensitivity. The old-school ideology of “toughening them up” to root out that sensitivity may not be the answer if it is inherent in their genetic makeup. In fact, it may have serious negative effects on the child to do so.
What can we do about it?
If we can recognise which group our children fall into, we can modify their environment to help them thrive.
- Worriers: Control the level of stress that these children experience so as not to overwhelm them. This allows them to function optimally.
- Warriors: Ramp up the excitement level in their day to day to better engage them. These are the children who might benefit from having a fire lit under them.
When faced with a threat, the warriors are ready for action and prepared to fight. Under the same threat, the worriers will freeze and be paralyzed by indecision. However, we can train our worriers to handle the threat. With enough practice and experience, the worriers can respond as well as, if not better than, the warriors. This is because we can utilise their better working memories and attentional systems to strengthen their responses. In other words, warriors excel in novel situations. Worriers, with practice and experience, can do even better.
It should be noted that whatever training we provide our worriers, does not translate to other activities. Their ability to handle the stressful event will be specific to the activity they have been trained for. Warriors, on the other hand, will be ready for whatever scenario they are thrown into, trained for or untrained for.
In the Real World
In the real world, life is stressful and every child will have to learn how to face it – right? Well, Top Dog points out that we can choose the level of stress we will have to face on a day to day basis even in the real world. For instance, if you are a warrior, you might choose to be a trial attorney where the stress levels can be intense. The worriers can choose to be a research attorney where they face lower stress levels on a regular basis. In a medical career, the warriors might choose to be in the emergency room, while the worriers may follow the path of a family practitioner.
Whichever category our children are in, the best thing we can do is to teach them to recognise their strengths and weaknesses and how to choose their environment to suit those strengths and weaknesses. Even if our worriers choose the path of higher stress, we know that with practice and experience, they can still learn to excel.