by Denise Yearian
Ever since Eileen Dina could remember, her son Matthew has had a competitive edge. “He was two when his brother was born and already had three older siblings, so he was constantly vying for my attention,” reports this mother of six. “But when he started playing video games at four, that’s when it really escalated.”
“Parents can expect competition to begin early on,” says child psychologist Dr. D’Arcy Lyness. “In the preschool years, the primary focus is on skill development and the process by which a goal is achieved – ‘I can tie my shoes the fastest!’”
Dr. Richard Holmes, clinical/school psychologist, agrees. “So much of preschool is fantasy play – the best runner, the best at certain games – but it isn’t as much based on reality. Somewhere around six years of age, children begin to develop the cognitive capacity to grasp what competition is about.”
Karen Kolek, mother of three, found this to be true. “When Kyle was in preschool and we played games, he hated to lose. But when he started school, that competitive nature really kicked in. That’s when he began comparing himself to his peers, both physically and academically.”
Dina’s son Matthew toyed with comparisons too. Sometimes when he played video games it would be with his two older brothers, both of whom had more developed fine motor skills and a better understanding of the game. “When he couldn’t master the controller or figure out how to get to the next level, he’d get upset,” recalls Dina. “Sometimes he would snap out at one of his siblings and yell at the TV. That’s when I’d tell him he was out of control, and to turn off the game.”
While it is normal to show disappointment in a bad play or lost game, there are telltale signs competition is out of control – intense anger or crying, cheating, lying, fear of failure, and trying to change game rules, to name a few. If any of these signs appear, parents may need to intervene.
“First look at why is this happening,” advises Lyness. “Are there influences in your child’s life that are encouraging this?”
“Last year there was a baseball team in our league and one of their assistant coaches – he was an older brother of a team member – got upset about a play and started cursing in front of the kids,” Kolek recalls. “I went up to him and told him I don’t use that kind of language at home and don’t expect to hear it here.” Kolek knew this teen coach was setting an example for the kids, so she took it up with league management and the rules were changed.
Dina’s oldest daughter, 14-year old Mary, has had to endure plenty of competitive issues with peers. “When she was little, there were two older neighbor boys who were all about win, win, win,” recalls her mother. “When they played a game and Mary lost, they rubbed it in her face. And when she won, they made such a scene. It got so bad we had to move away.”
However unfortunate, Mary learned valuable lessons regarding competition, which have helped her find a healthy balance. “The last two years she has been part of Business Professionals of America, an extracurricular activity aimed at introducing middle school students to business professions,” Dina explains. “This past year she and her team put together a career package and did a formal PowerPoint presentation. They competed on the state level and got second place. This led to the national competition where her team came in third.”
But the team was not without problems. “They had issues working together because some of the girls wanted to control the project. Mary and I spent a lot of time talking about how best to deal with this,” says Dina.
Experts agree communication is key. “Whenever you notice a problem with regard to competition – either in your child or someone in his realm of influence – talk it over,” says Holmes. “Point out examples where others are out of line so your child can learn from these situations.” By the same token, if your child is going overboard with competition, communicate what is and is not acceptable behavior.
Most important, look at the value you and your spouse place on competition. “Children watch their parents and follow suit,” says Lyness. “Competition can be a good thing – it’s what drives people to achieve their personal best. But when a child sets out with the sole intention of slamming his opponent, it has gotten out of perspective.”
Above all, balance enjoyment of an activity with the desire to win. “A child should try hard so he can feel proud of himself and want to win. But if he does lose, he should see the value in learning from his mistakes, accept the loss, and bounce back with a good attitude, ready to try again,” Lyness says.
For many parents, Dina included, this may be a lesson communicated over and over. “I remember the time Matthew was seven and playing Nintendo. I was in the kitchen and heard things beginning to escalate. Before I had the chance to do my usual, ‘Turn it off!’ he got up, switched off the TV, and left the room! That’s when I knew it was finally sinking in.”
Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children.
How to Keep Competition in Perspective
- Analyze your own feelings regarding your child’s participation in the activity. What do you want him to get out of it?
- Attend and observe his programs. Are the instructors being fair, teaching good sportsmanship, and encouraging fun, participation, and cooperation? In the younger years, is the emphasis more on skill development or winning?
- Keep your expectations for your child’s performance limited to his developmental level and age.
- Teach him to compete against his best performance.
- Help him set attainable goals.
- Compliment publicly. Give constructive words privately.
- Help him deal with his frustration.
- Praise his efforts, not the final outcome.
- Focus on his strengths.
- Be careful with personal comparisons. Negative comparisons make a child feel inferior. Positive ones build a child up while putting others down.
- Help your child understand that competitions are meant to be fun, and failure isn’t fatal.
- Emphasize fun, cooperation, and teamwork over competition.
- Love your child unconditionally.