“Emily still needs
training wheels on her bike and I don’t.”
All children have competitive feelings and all run into competitive
situations during the early elementary years. There’s competition in
games, sports, the classroom, social life, and family life. When
properly handled, competition can motivate children to do their
best. Some need the “jolt” of competition to put energy into
studying, practicing, or per forming.
For a number of reasons, some kids are more competitive than others.
A younger sibling tries to keep up with, or even surpass, his older
brothers and sisters. He’ll compete in anything from schoolwork,
sports, and music to crafts, skate boarding, and game playing. The
younger child tries harder, earlier than his older siblings did, and
often he fails because he’s not developmentally ready to compete on
an equal basis.
Schools often encourage kids to become competitive. Grades are given
and sometimes announced: “I’m better than Monique in math. She got a
C again.” Teachers give stickers to the child who has the right
answers, the best picture, the neatest handwriting, or the nicest
behavior. Only the top homework projects go on display and only the
best book reports get read out loud. In gym class, teachers may
single out the most athletic children: “Everybody watch how fast
Mark runs.” “Look how Susie jumps!”
Recreation class leaders and team coaches also encourage
competition: “Let me tell you the other team’s weaknesses. Then
we’ll go get ‘em.” “Play better and we’ll win.” Children compete
with other teams and also with their own teammates to be the best or
the first or the one who spends the most time on the field.
By far the greatest influence on a child’s competitive sense is his
parents. Some parents, ignoring their child’s strengths, weaknesses
and interest, put intense pressure on him: “You can do it.” “Go out
there and beat them.” “Andy stinks. You’re a lot better than he is.”
They may do this because of their own unresolved competitive
feelings. They may have been similarly pressured as children and now
repeat old patterns. They may feel insecure about their skills and
push their child in order to compensate for their own feelings of
They might pressure him to compete because they feel he’s lazy and
unmotivated. By reinforcing competition, they hope to spur him to
greater accomplishments: “If you’d just tried harder you could’ve
won that match. Next time pay attention to what you’re doing.” “I
know you can get the highest grade on the test. Just study more.”
When parents invest time and energy urging their child to compete,
he may feel humiliated when he doesn’t perform as they wish. One
parent berated his child for dropping the baseball during a game.
Another was angry because her child got fewer points than a neigh
boring child in a classroom competition. Parents may justify such
pressure by saying, “It’s tough out there, and if he doesn’t learn
how to compete now, he’s never going to make it in the real world.”
The unenthusiastic child who competes does so because his parents
want him to. He may simply fail for lack of skill or desire, or he
may put on a swaggering front. Even after swinging at the baseball
and missing, he may say to a teammate, “I’m better than you are. At
least I swing harder.” Some unwilling kids compete angrily, becoming
extremely frustrated if they lose. They know how much their failure
disappoints their parents.
In moderation, competitive feelings are acceptable, especially if a
child has confidence in himself and his abilities. A child with a
good self-image will not think badly of himself if he loses or
exaggerate his importance if he wins. An insecure child may only
compete when he’s sure to win, or will compete and have his
self-image fluctuate, depending on his performance. One girl who was
not competitive by nature became so to please her father. Her
teacher reported that the girl hesitated to try something unless she
was sure she’d do well.
Some kids are excessively competitive. They’re consumed with being
bigger and better, and they want to win at everything. Even if they
are highly skilled, their attitude is disturbing and unattractive.
Many parents of highly competitive children worry about their
intense drive. They know that the fun of participating is lost when
their child is obsessed with being the best. One girl became upset
with her score while bowling. When her request to take her turnover
was denied, she got angry and demanding, eventually ruining the game
for her family.
If you’re concerned about your child’s excessive competitive
feelings, there are several approaches you can try. Work on his
attitude, and talk to him about competition from the opponent’s
point of view. Explain that part of competing is learning to lose
gracefully and congratulating the winning opponent. He will adopt
your point of view if you model the behavior you’d like to see in
him. Be a good winner— and loser—and, after trying your best,
minimize the importance of competition and move on to another
If you don’t understand your child’s competitive drive or can’t
affect it, take a look at his overall situation. Does he need more
of your time and attention at home? Do his siblings consistently
out-perform him? Do they include him in their activities? Does he
have enough success at school and at home? Is he involved in too
many competitive activities? Should another interest be encouraged?
Are his activities appropriate for his age level or does he struggle
to keep up?
Once you’ve stopped placing pressure on him, help him put less
pressure on himself. Although he may continue to be highly
competitive, stress the enjoyment and fulfillment of participating
in activities and let him know what he’s missing by focusing so
strongly on winning.