Competitiveness in kids starts early but there are ways that parents can encourage it to be healthy versus harmful. So, what exactly is healthy competition? It varies predicated on what is accepted within a certain family setting, cultural and moral states, explains Mary McAteer, MD, pediatrician at Indiana University Health. “The American culture is set up to reward people who win,” says Dr. McAteer. “For example, most of our definitions of a ‘good’ sports team are based on their win-loss record.” And while this can be okay for adults who can handle it, it can be confusing for kids who don’t quite yet have the ability to differentiate between healthy and hostile rivalry. With that in mind, here are some tips for helping a child develop the competitive skills necessary to succeed in the world.
Keep an Eye Out for Apathy
How do you know when competition has reached an unhealthy level? “The way the majority of kids deal with too much competition is apathy — in other words, they don’t want to do the activity anymore. They’ll often quit before they fail; they lose interest before they can disappoint their parents,” says Dr. McAteer. So, if you notice that your child is suddenly giving up on every activity you try to interest them in try to figure out where their apathy is stemming from. Is it really the activity or is something bigger going on?
Impart That You Love Them Regardless of Result
If your child displays signs of apathy remind them that you don’t express love that way nor do you pin your feelings towards them based on their success/failure ratio. “Tell them, ‘A lot of times things are not fair in life, and you have to learn to adjust. But, it’s not a competition for my love,’” says Dr. McAteer. Verbalizing comments like that can help keep competitive instincts on track.
Notice the Grace of Losers
Instead of always focusing on the winners in situations, notice the grace of losers and point them out to your children. “At the end of a sports game, say something like ‘See, there were no hard feelings in that game…though the losers were disappointed, everyone shook hands and walked off the field proudly,’” says Dr. McAteer, who says there will be lots of teaching opportunities during events like the Olympics. “When you’re losing, you learn important life lessons, even more than when you win.” Determination, courage, rising above heartbreak —these are all an important part of fully understanding competition.
Explain the Benefits of Continuing to Try
“I think it’s so wonderful when kids who are never winning at a sport still play, because one day they will eventually beat someone better than them,” says Dr. McAteer. “Try to explain to a child that while they may not always be first, if they like doing something and like learning about it, then they’re still ‘winning’ in a sense even if they’re technically losing.”
Keep Your Own Competitiveness in Check
“It’s okay to encourage, but it’s not productive to say things like ‘You need to do well on this test so you so you can get into a gifted class,’” says Dr. McAteer. Statements like that can be paralyzing to a child. Instead of big picture, break it down into small pieces and tasks that the child can accomplish and feel good about (i.e. “If you try your hardest on this test, we’ll get ice cream afterwards”).
Furthermore, it’s important to remind children that we all have special gifts and they come out at different times in our lives. In other words, not every child is supposed to make varsity football or graduate valedictorian and you could unintentionally be suppressing a child’s artistic or other genius by forcing them in a direction that’s not a fit for their personality. “I think it’s really important that parents check themselves,” says Dr. McAteer. “Instead of trying to make a child into a ‘mini-me,’ parents need to allow their children to explore new things.”