Should We Be Teaching Children’s It’s a Dog-Eat-Dog World?: Thoughts on Social-Emotional Development in Early Childhood

As educators and parents, we only want the best for the children we work and live with. And that means giving every bit as much attention — if not more — to their social-emotional development in early childhood as it does to their cognitive development. Also, for many, it means  preparing them to succeed in what is perceived to be a “dog-eat-dog” world.

But is that really the way of the world? Is it truly a place that requires us to prepare children to do battle, rather than belong; to clash, rather than collaborate; and to see everyone else as foe, not friend?

Is there competition in life? Sure. But I don’t believe it’s as wide-ranging as is commonly proclaimed. For example, it’s not as though there are only six A’s allotted per classroom. If kids want to do well in school they have to work for it – not in a way that causes someone else to fail but by doing their own personal best. If they want to get into a good college, or get a good job, it’s the same thing. Yes, there are only so many placements to be had; but if they’ve put forth the appropriate effort, learned a good work ethic, and are people with character, regardless of whether or not they get their first choice of schools or jobs, they’re going to be just fine!

And speaking of character, the research, detailed in Alfie Kohn’s book, No Contest: The Case Against Competition, points toward some less-than-desirable characteristics resulting from competition. The research tells us that it:

• causes people to believe they’re not responsible for what happens to them and contributes to learned helplessness;
• significantly increases aggression; and
• invites the use of cheating and other antisocial behaviors in order to win.

Studies have also demonstrated that competitive children are both less generous and less empathetic than others. Is that the kind of “character” we want our children to grow up with?

I’ll concede that there are occasions in life when we must compete. But if we consider the number of relationships in our lives – familial, spousal, work- and community-related – we have to admit that there are more occasions for cooperation and collaboration than competition.

The next logical question, then, is: If it isn’t actually a dog-eat-dog world, are we adequately preparing children to succeed in one in which collaboration and cooperation (should) reign?

Personally, I don’t believe we are. I believe the push for competition has been growing stronger in this country, which is why we’d rather enroll children barely out of diapers in competitive sports programs than provide opportunities for them to see how good it feels to work and be together. We’d rather structure their lives and experiences than allow for free play (which would encourage so many prosocial skills). And with the push for more academics and accountability reaching even the earliest grades, we’re giving children the message that personal achievement matters more than just about anything else.

Cooperation doesn’t come naturally to children. Like any skill, it must be practiced and honed. And if play is not part of their daily experience, if they’re not allowed to talk to one another during the school day, if recess is non-existent, if they’re pitted against one another with gold stars and behavior charts – well, just where and when do they learn and refine their cooperative skills?
Given that neighborhoods aren’t what they used to be and child-chosen and -directed activities are few and far between these days, cooperative skills aren’t likely being built outside of school either. That means that, as an early childhood professional, you have both a responsibility and a great opportunity to offer children cooperative experiences. To let them see how good it can feel to be and work together.

Here are some ways you can make a difference:

  • Read and assign stories involving cooperation.
  • Don’t hold contests or assign gold stars or stickers to the “best” students.
  • Offer opportunities for pairs and groups of students to participate in collaborative learning. Arrange your classroom to allow for it.
  • Focus specifically on cooperation by playing and facilitating cooperative games instead of those that eliminate and discriminate. Challenge the children to find ways to create geometric shapes with partners and groups, to create partner and group balances, and to work together to solve movement and academic problems, such as using their hands to measure one another’s height or using their bodies to form the shape of letters or numbers.

In 2013, an article in Forbes identified the top ten qualities employers are seeking in 20-something employees and the number-one quality was the ability to work in a team. Couple that with reports that today’s companies are having to spend copious amounts of money training their employees in team-building skills, and it’s easy to see that learning to cooperate and collaborate — that social-emotional development — goes well beyond just being “nice.”

For more ideas, check out my 5-minute video on games that teach cooperation!


This blog post is sponsored by

ChildCare Education Institute


  • Sophie Breytenbach says:

    Thank you sooo much for this information. As a pre-school teacher and trainer of teachers, I emphasize that competition has no place with the young child and, I believe, does not have to have a place in adulthood. Doing your best, improve your skills, working as a team member has shown to be the story of success of many firms and individuals.

    • Rae says:

      Yes, Sophie! It’s always interesting to me that we consider the developmental appropriateness of other things but not competition. For many reasons — social/emotional, cognitive, and physical — young children are not ready for competition. And, in fact, given a choice, preschoolers prefer cooperative activities to competitive ones…but adults too often fail to consider the children’s preferences.

  • Z says:

    Bless you bless you bless you bless you eternally for this article.

  • Hello Rae Pica ~ Thank you for your piece on ‘dog eat dog’. I believe children are perfectly well aware that some are better than others at various skills, from running fast, to singing, to making a scary mask. I believe we do not investigate enough WITH children what we all mean by skills and gifts. A child in a classroom may not be the fastest or the sweetest singer, but is the one all the other want to be near. It could be that he or she has a nature that makes others feel good about themselves. What would they call that skill? I should ask the children what names they would give to all the ‘soft skills’ about which we hear so much & which we are told are in such short supply in graduates. This would help us understand how children see each others’ contributions. I believe children are a great deal more nuanced in their views than is generally thought. Children need to learn how to learn, how to work things out, and how to share work. If a group of youngsters is planning a town, they will know which amongst them have the some of the various skills required – spatial awareness, co-ordination, planning, fine & gross motor skills. They may not know the names, but they recognise who is good at what. We should have confidence in children to work things out between themselves. The ones without the apparent skills may the very ones good at organising others & encouraging co-operation. If children’s lives are not open enough, often enough, to experiences which let them learn how to work through mutual support & encouragement, we have not done our jobs as exemplars, teachers, nurturers.

  • Thank you Rae Pica. I believe that children from a very young age are highly tuned to the skills in each other. Some children can run fast, sing sweetly, or may not have an apparent skill but are the ones the other children like to be around. Perhaps these have a gift of making others feel good. If they are going to build a town in the mud, they will all know which of them will have the required skills – spatial awareness, fine and gross motor skills, planning, oversight, co-ordination – they may not know the names of these skills or gifts, but they understand them. I think we should spend more time talking with and listening to young children about the meanings and names of gifts and skills. We should ask them about their ideas on the ‘soft skills’ we keep hearing graduates lack. I am certain we should trust children to work it out for themselves most of the time. They need to learn how to learn, how to work how something works, and how to work together to get a project done. I am certain children are more nuanced in their thinking on the matters of gifts, abilities, and skills than is generally thought. We should be making as much space as possible, as often as possible, to let them work things out together. If we don’t, we are letting them down as exemplars, teachers, parents, and leaders.

  • The Montessori world education does all of this best. They have the model. We just need to implement and follow it.

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