Kids and Competition
Dear Dr. Medoff,
My 8-year-old son is extremely competitive and in my opinion, places too much emphasis on winning. If he does not win, he will pitch a fit, cry, or get really angry. Clearly, there will be times in life when he cannot "win,” and I want him to accept that. How can I help him with this?
From Holley in Atlanta, Georgia.
We place a lot of emphasis on competition and winning in our culture, and children pick up on this quite early. Competition surrounds kids from a very young age. You may have very mixed feelings about wanting to both encourage and discourage this tendency in your son, since a certain level of competition can be healthy and motivating. However, you do want to teach him both to be a gracious winner and to cope with losing. Here are some strategies that can help:
- You are the number one model for your child’s behavior. Assess your own personality, your activities, your friendships, and your business relations – what does your son see and hear about competition from you and the other adults in his life? How do you handle winning and losing? Keep a record of your own behavior or ask close friends for their opinions.
- What about his siblings – are they competitive? How do they handle winning and losing? Do you compare them to each other?
- Learn more about your son’s school – is it focused on comparing students or on everyone doing his best to learn? Get a sense of the overall school climate and that of his individual classroom. Research has shown that kids learn better in schools and classrooms that are more cooperative than competitive. Approach teachers and administrators with specific concerns. Ask for their opinions, advice, and help.
- Is your son involved in sports? What are the coaches, kids, and other parents like? Do they emphasize winning at all costs over sportsmanship? If so, perhaps you need to find another sport or team with a different philosophy.
- Look at your child’s media influences. What TV shows is he watching? What video games does he play? What messages are being sent about competition? Encourage him to play games that focus on improving oneself rather than beating others, such as chess or other strategy games.
- Work on role modeling. Play games with him where sometimes you win and sometimes he does. When he wins, model good sportsmanship and compliment him on specific strategies, not the fact that he won. When you win, model humility and encourage him to end the game with grace. Ask him what he learned and what he will do differently next time. If he gets angry, do not reinforce this behavior. Help him understand how his actions make the other person feel. Tell him that you are sorry he is upset and it makes you sad to see him act this way. Then walk away.
- Look for activities that make him feel good about doing things for other people – build compassion and empathy through volunteering, especially through activities that involve working with others. He can play sports with kids with handicaps, visit senior citizens and play card games, work on a team to feed the homeless, or help out wherever there’s a need.
- Find a sport, hobby, or activity that he can do (or even better, that you can do together) where there is no winner or loser.
- Have him focus on improving his skills and beating himself, not others.
- Be careful that your love and attention is not tied to his wins or losses. Focus on specific achievements or behaviors, rather than winning or losing.
Lisa Medoff, Ph.D holds a B.A. in psychology, a master's degree in school counseling, and a Ph.D. in child and adolescent development. Although she’s worked with all types of children, for the past eight years, she has worked with students with special needs, such as ADHD, learning disabilities, depression and anxiety. She has taught courses in psychology and child/adolescent development at Stanford University, Santa Clara University, San Jose State University, and DeAnza College. She currently works as a resilience consultant for the non-profit Cleo Eulau Center, helping teachers at a low-performing elementary school understand issues of connectedness, special needs, and cultural sensitivity in order to build resilience in their students.