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Why Are First Graders So Competitive?

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If your child suddenly developed a me-first, gimme-gimme attitude once first grade hit, it's not a coincidence. Learn why first grade is the year that finishing first becomes first priority to children, and find out how you can deal with it.

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Once upon a time...

By Jae Curtis.

Once upon a time, your darling preschooler was happy to play second fiddle to a playmate. Even in kindergarten, your laid-back kid probably didn't mind bringing up the rear in a playground race. Then, it hits: first grade. And in first grade, your once-easygoing tot suddenly has to be the best at everything. Whether it's turning in a paper first or being the one to tattle on a cohort, changes that happen in first grade can have your little one constantly gunning for first place. Understanding why a win-at-all-costs attitude is your new normal can help you taper off gazelle-like intensity, saving the competitive nature for when it really counts.

Parental pressure

Some parents are aware of impressing a need to succeed on even their young kids, but other parents do it subconsciously. Psychiatrist Carole Lieberman notes, "When [kids] know that one or both parents are chomping on the bit at home, waiting to hear all about how he or she has proven that they're the best, it puts pressure on them to compete at all costs." Check your own attitude and make sure that you're putting the emphasis on trying hard and doing well, not always being the best at everything. "Parents need to recognize their own dog-eat-dog style and try not to foist this on their kids—at least not in first grade," Lieberman warns.

Child nature

Newsflash, parents: First graders aren't exactly the most selfless creatures in the playground jungle. They're inherently self-centered because they simply don't have the capacity to consider others just yet. Don't be surprised when your little one climbs on another kid's shoulders on his race to the top. While compassion comes with age and wisdom, you can make sure your child is in tune with others by constantly pointing out different emotions and using "feeling" words around the house.

Self-esteem

Your first grader's self-esteem is directly tied to his performance in school and around other adults. After all, he gets a huge boost from a happy teacher when he nails a spelling word and you probably offer plenty of praise when he scores the winning goal on the soccer field. He feels good when he's the best and therefore adopts a must-win attitude. While it's perfectly fine to praise, make sure you're specific about the kudos. Instead of giving a high five for being the "best," compliment your child on his good sportsmanship, extra study time and perfect printing instead.

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Different grading

Hey, cut your kid a little slack; in kindergarten, everyone was a winner. Entering first grade means entering a world where mistakes matter. Not only that, but first graders eagerly ask to compete in various capacities throughout the school. "Teachers and schools have competitions of what class has the best attendance of parents at the PTO meeting, coloring contests, essay contests, standardized test scores attainment, and on and on," says Deb Moberly, an associate professor within the early childhood division of teaching and learning at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. "Perhaps we need to take a step back and re-examine our competitive nature," she urges. "Why pressure young children? Why isn't doing your best enough?"

Getting attention

Some first graders love to come in first because of the attention it nets them from grown-ups. After all, tattling on another kid who's talking makes a child feel uber-important, especially when a teacher seems pleased with the result. When your little one is the cream of the crop, you might give way more attention than when he comes out somewhere in the middle. Of course, that means you're comparing your kid to others in the class, when he should really strive to compete against himself instead.

Gauging milestones

First graders are smart. They learn to compare themselves to their peers from day one. They then use their friend's achievements to push themselves to work harder. After all, when one kid can tie her shoes, yours might work harder to master the skill and trump her achievement in the process. While a little friendly competition isn't a bad thing, teaching your little one to celebrate differences and work on his own talents might serve him better.

The real world

Your first grader is more than he once was. Younger kids are the best because they imagine they're the best, period. Your first grader starts to understand that while he might rule the roost at home, some kids are simply better than him at skills he once imagined he'd mastered. That letdown can be upsetting, so it's important that you focus on your child's talents and strengths. Hey, he might not be the best mathematician in the class, but accusing his friend of cheating to get ahead isn't okay.

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It's normal.

Your child's incessant need to be the best of the best might drive you batty, but rest assured that it's totally normal behavior. A first grader's world is changing daily, so it makes sense that he clings to his abilities and talents to make him feel a little more secure in a sea of other kids. The trick is to make sure he knows he's #1 in your eyes—giant foam finger not required.

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