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Win-Win! Parenting the Competitive Child

by Darryl Owens

Americans tend to be pretty competitive—chalk it up to our entrepreneurial spirit—but the commercial age we’re in now has us surrounded by advertising slogans and images that intensify both our desire to win and our fear of losing.

Consider these recent Madison Avenue mantras:
“ If you don’t play to win, don’t play,”
“ Second place is the first loser,” and
“ Winning isn’t everything—it’s the only thing!”

Great lines for selling sneakers, but as life advice, it’s certainly suspect. These are fuzzy times indeed for moms and dads when it comes to nurturing competition.

At one extreme, you encounter the “Just win, baby!” ethic, encouraging our kids to act like little cut-throats, while at the other extreme, you find ballgames where no score is kept and school systems where honor rolls aren’t posted for fear of traumatizing less accomplished students.

Competition, experts say, has developed an undeserved bad rap.

“Competition is good for helping children strive for higher achievement,” says Kathryn Seifert, CEO of Eastern Shore Psychological Services. But the spirit embodied in those pop culture slogans, she says, shows “anything taken to extremes can be destructive. Competition is part of what has made this country great, but so is compassion. Life needs balance.”

Parents must step in and seize upon life’s teachable moments to help their charges learn to channel competitive impulses in healthy ways. If not, competition becomes one of “those double-edged swords that if not used appropriately could easily send the wrong message to our children,” says Charles Sophy, medical director of the Department of Children and Family Services for LA County.

Nature vs. Nurture
As with many human qualities, dueling opinions exist among researchers regarding the origins of the competitive impulse: Is it intrinsic or is it something in the atmosphere?

For instance, Sophy, who writes the blog, “Keep ‘Em Off My Couch: Practical Answers for Life’s Biggest Problems,” believes that humans as “an animal species by nature” are competitive by design. Thomas S. Greenspon, a licensed psychologist, contends “both nature and nurture are at play.”

Donald W. Albertson, neither a researcher nor a psychologist, meanwhile, believes from his observations as a youth sports coach that the competitive fire burns in the genes.

“The strong desire to compete is evident at a very young age,” says Albertson, author of Catch a Rising Star: The Adult Game of Youth Sports.

That sounds familiar to Pamela Samuels, who began noticing her son’s competitive streak racing rampant before he ever took his first step. As a toddler he would try to out-race his peers to collect hugs, and moped around, frustrated, when he fell short.

“If he is not the best, in his eyes he is not good enough,” Samuels says of her son, Isaiah, who is five now. “He is competitive in everything: who can eat the fastest, who can put on the seat belt first, winning board games, running the fastest, finding the largest rock, getting the best slice of pizza, getting the most answers correct in school,” she says, truncating the list for time’s sake. “As a parent, this type of child is exciting, scary, frustrating and absolutely challenging.”

Inculcating balance is the challenge for parents, experts say. And the trick is teaching children the difference between competition and demoralization, between winning the game and beating the person.

“Striving for mastery, having passion for something you do, wanting things to work out well—these are probably universal features of humanity,” says Greenspon, author of Freeing Our Families From Perfectionism (Free Spirit Publishing). “All children have these… [and] we all need these things to succeed. If we limit the definition of ‘competitive nature’ to these things, then a competitive nature is vital. If a competitive nature means a drive to win, pretty much regardless of the cost to self and others, then competitiveness is not only not vital, it becomes destructive.”

Teaching Healthy Competition
When parents think of nurturing their child’s competitive drive, one of the first places they turn is the ball field.

“Kids need to learn how to compete in the world,” Albertson says. “The need to learn that losing is a part of life and they should be taught how to deal with it healthfully. This is an essential skill kids should have by the time they enter adulthood. Competitive sports are an excellent place to learn how to compete and excel within the rules.”

However, left alone to act upon what they’ve witnessed of professional sports, kids can develop a skewed view of competition. Parents should teach their children that healthy competition isn’t a synonym for all-out war.

“Make sure they understand that the other team is their opponent, not their enemy,” Albertson says. “It’s good sportsmanship when, after an excellent tackle, the ball carrier gets up and pats the tackler on the helmet and says, ‘good hit.’ They start to learn respect for each other as players and, ultimately, people.”

It’s important to check out the coaches, too, to gauge their values and approach to competition, so that your perspectives mesh.

Ball fields and hard courts aren’t the only arenas for teaching children healthy competition. Kids can experience competition in school, scouting and creative activities such as public speaking and in group settings.

“All of these activities have the ability to ignite the competitive fire, whether they are group activities or activities such as learning at school,” says Sophy.

But communication is the best way to ensure that your child develops a healthy perspective on competition. Parents need to gently correct the child when he or she crosses the line and offer praise when the child gets it right.

“Have a talk with your kids,” Greenspon says. “Discuss whether the point is to win a game or to beat the other guy. Ask about how they feel about losses, and why. Ask if it is more than just a game to them. And here’s the kicker: have the courage to ask if they get any of this hyper-competitiveness from you. If so, and if you want this to be different, work on it together.”

Pamela Samuels is working on it with Isaiah: “If I observe him competing at something in a positive way, I will talk to him about the good things he did while competing,” she says. “This could be anything from competing at a school athletic event, to striving for higher grades or to get an award, to building something, to playing a board game. I will also talk to him when I notice a negative reaction as a result of his competitive nature, [such as] a huge frustration level or even a tantrum if he does not win at a game, if he does not get the biggest and the best slice of pizza, does not run the fastest. We talk about what he could have done differently, how we will handle it the next time and how his actions affect those around him.”

In the end, nurturing a healthy sense of competitiveness in a child depends upon fostering a “competitive nature that encourages building oneself up without having to knock others down,” says Shana Meyerson, founder of mini yogis for kids (www.miniyogis.com). “With no drive to succeed, a child has no future. But competition must always come with perspective and a healthy respect for one’s own efforts as well as the efforts of others. If you teach a child to take pride in every single thing that he or she does, [the child] will succeed and be just as productive as the child who is poked and prodded all day long to beat the other kids.”

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