Raising a Competitive Child
The world is a competitive place, and we all want our children to do well. How do you find a balance between encouraging a little healthy competition and bringing up a child who will burn out or alienate others? My children compete with one another about almost everything (nothing with any importance whatsoever). They vie for who gets to open the door first, who can say a sentence faster, etc. I am constantly telling them, “It’s not a race; it’s not a contest.” The society in which we live loves winners. However, hyper-competitiveness has its drawbacks, such as stress, physical injury and isolation from peers.
My daughter enjoys gymnastics. I wanted to see her improve. I enrolled her in a two-hour, three-times-per-week competitive class expecting she would love this extra time in the gym. She did not. Many tears and a non-refundable deposit later, we pulled back to the once-a-week class. She is much happier and still loves gymnastics. I know that if I had required her to stay in the more intensive class, she would have resented me and no longer enjoyed the sport.
Trust your instincts as a parent, and if winning at all costs results in a stressed-out, mentally unhealthy kid, reevaluate the benefit. Most importantly, make sure your child is pursuing his or her own goals, not yours.
Tips for Keeping Competition in Perspective
- If your child is very competitive in sports or at school, find ways to spend time together at home that focus on non-competitive activities (i.e., maybe Monopoly isn’t the best board game choice for your family). Check out some of these cooperative board games: Pandemic, Forbidden Island or Flash Point: Fire Rescue.
- Acknowledge his feelings but help him put them in proportion. Of course it is okay to be disappointed with a setback, but this is not the end of the world.
- Replace a very competitive activity or add one that is less competitive. Activities like martial arts, volunteering, drama club, exercise and lessons can be just as enriching as playing on a team where winning is the primary goal. Ask older children to talk to your child about things they enjoy doing now. Show them that joy and relaxation can be found in a number of pursuits, regardless of whether winning is involved.
- Share with your child accounts of successful people who have lost competitions or faced setbacks. One loss won’t stop someone who is determined to succeed. Even professional sports players can strike out or miss a shot.
- Teach your children the reality that in the world there will ALWAYS be someone faster/stronger/smarter than they are, just like there will always be someone slower/weaker/less intelligent. Everyone has his own special talents. Make sure you remind your children of theirs. If they are suffering from a perceived loss, ask them to come up with some things they are good at.
- Discuss what realistic goals look like. Is it realistic that you will come in first every time? Probably not. Is it realistic that you will improve? Probably—if you stick with it. Reinforce that improvement does not always happen in a straight line or even in ways that can be measured. Many video games offer experience points. You get experience points in life for having tried something, whether you won or lost.
- Praise the effort, not the end result. Instead of saying, “Wow, you got an A,” say, “I am really proud of how hard you worked on that project!” If you are picking her up after a competition, first ask, “Did you have fun?” rather than “Did you win?”
- Praise the by-products of competition. You got some good exercise! You got to hang out and have fun with your friends! You got the chance to practice!
- Help your child protect his or her free time. Let your kids pursue those activities they are passionate about, but help them say no to some of the multitude of possible uses of their time that will come their way.
- Try not to compare your child’s performance to that of others, especially siblings or long-term classmates. Teach him to compete against himself or a measurable number.
- Set a good example. Naturally, you want to brag to your friends about your kid’s successes. (Competitive parenting, anyone?) Sharing happy news with others is fine, but try to do it in a way that doesn’t make your child feel as though he has let you down if he didn’t win first prize. Let your child hear you compliment his competitors on a job well done too.
How do I tell whether my child is OVERLY competitive?
- He is acting like a little egomaniac. He brags to his friends or siblings about how awesome he is. He is losing friends because of this attitude.
- She cheats or changes the rules in her favor. Many kids will push boundaries and cheat at little things to see what they can get away with. This is a normal part of development; however, if the cheating becomes frequent this can be a red flag.
- She is consistently a poor sport. Small children have to learn good sportsmanship, and this can take time. Older children should not throw tantrums or be extremely angry or sad because of one bad grade or a lost match. If your child cannot be respectful of her classmates or competitors, perhaps she should not be allowed to participate.
- He gets down on himself and engages in negative, absolute thought patterns, like “I’m never going to get it right” or “Our team lost the game because I missed that one shot.”
Laura Miller McEachen is a part-time attorney and full-time mommy.