Kids jumping into the air in a forest

Why Are Kids So Competitive?

We sat at the community pool by our house, playing with some new friends. All of the kids ranged in ages from three to seven.

One six year old said to a five year old, “I can swim without floaties. Can you?” 

The five year old then said, “I’m a really good swimmer! I bet I can swim better than you!”

I try to avoid interjecting into the play of children, but I struggle with biting my tongue when an opportunity arises to guide a conversation into a place that shows them that their worth isn’t tied to their skills. My seven year old was witnessing this conversation, and he was wearing floaties. I didn’t want him to think that he wasn’t good enough because he didn’t know how to swim. 

“It’s not about who has more practice with swimming, it’s about enjoying swimming itself. Do you guys like to swim?” I asked. The conversation immediately swerved into who loves swimming the most. [Insert gigantic eye roll because my “lesson” flew over their heads.]

“It’s not a competition,” I said. “I know, I know,” they grumbled. They’d heard this before. But had they practiced it? Did they really believe that life wasn’t about being the best when everything around them told them that it was?

How does this competitive spirit crop up in kids?

Almost everything in Western culture is rooted in achievement, in being the best, in numbers and success. Something so deeply ingrained in a society means that we are conditioned from a young age to view competitiveness and competition as the norm. There are differing views on whether competitiveness is an innate trait or not, but I think competitiveness is a learned behavior based on the values of a society

Social psychologist, Dr. Sander van der Linden, said, “A “competition,” by its very nature, is what psychologists call an “extrinsic incentive.” Extrinsic simply means that the motivation to adopt a behavior or decision is sourced externally rather than internally (e.g., when you do something because you get a reward for it). A fundamental characteristic (and downside) of nearly all extrinsic incentives is that they only tend to work for as long as the incentive is maintained.” In the case of competition, the incentive could be praise, winning, a boost in self-esteem if they did win, attention, and so on (not to discount that certain forms of competition might foster teamwork, discipline, and other interpersonal skills if done right. But those seem to fall below the connection between winning/losing and self-worth). And the very nature of competition being an external incentive seems to signify its environmental influence. 

Of course, we can’t shield our kids from all competition when it is so prevalent in almost every aspect of our lives. We all want our kids to succeed, but success doesn’t mean we have to beat other people to achieve it. Although society might tell you that that is a false assumption. 

I want to discuss some more minor ways that competitiveness might crop up on us in our daily interactions with our kids. 

“Race your sister to the car!” One person wins in this scenario. Which means one person loses. If they want to race, maybe race a timer so they are both beating an object together rather than competing against each other. 

“Let’s take a vote on who wants to go to the beach or go to the amusement park?” The people with the majority “win.” It might be hard for the “losers” to enjoy what was chosen because of the sting of not winning, even though both choices would be fun. In this case, if there is more than one child, have a family meeting and ask everyone what they would like to do during the week or month (plausible things – you could even put up some choices for them to choose from). Once you’ve made a list of some ideas, pick one or two and write them on the calendar and let everyone know what’s going down. 

Sports competitions, games on TV, games at the playground. These are natural and sometimes unavoidable parts of life. But they do influence our children. Being mindful of our reactions to sports can be helpful in how our children view competition. 

Games like Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders, even the Sneaky Snacky Squirrel Game all have winners and losers. They have someone taking pieces from someone else. Someone having more. Someone being more? If this person wins, are they more valuable than I am? Are they smarter? They must be better. I need to try harder to be worth more, more valuable. Right? I know that might seem deep for considering board games, but I know those thoughts have crossed my mind when I was a child.

And then the natural development of children categorizing things. Fast things. Slow things. Tall things. Short things. House sizes. Clothing choices. Compare and contrast is how they figure out how the world is now. But how we speak to them and guide them could be how the world exists in the future.

Do kids need to learn to win and lose? After all, life is about coping with successes and failures.

Well, yeah. Obviously people need to learn to “lose” gracefully. The world is already filled with adults who lose their shit on occasion when things don’t go their way (*raises hand*). Do you think these adults played competitive sports, competitive board games, competitive existences? More than likely… yes (*raises hand again*). And I would also take a guess that they were told to stop being a sore loser, or to suck it up, or that life’s not fair, or maybe even a gentler “you win some you lose some.” Maybe they are used to getting a gold star, a pat on the back, a reward in the form of external acceptance (*raises all the hands there are*). And maybe you do support your child through losses in an empathetic way. That doesn’t eliminate the feelings they may carry regarding their perception that they let their teammates down or that they let their parents down or that if they could have done something differently, maybe they would have won. We all want to be accepted, but when it is tied with our own self-worth… there lies a problem. 

Everything about our culture (speaking for the U.S. in general, but I’m guessing this applies to many places) is rooted in achievement, in competition, in worth being inextricably linked with abilities and “success.” That’s probably why this concept seems so radical, this concept that competition is, outright, unhealthy (stay with me here… or read this link written by the incredible Alfie Kohn who has influenced so many aspects of my parenting journey).

Let’s take a look at school. Work is graded. Those grades supposedly tell you whether you understood the material or not. But what they turn into is who did better? Who has the highest grade? Who has the lowest grade? Who gets the prize, the pat on the back, the praise? What if we tossed out tests and grades? What if we did a portfolio system where our sole focus with each student was their individual growth and improvement, comparing themselves with themselves rather than comparing one student to an entire student body of diversely-abled people.

Children are punished for not scoring the correct results. What message does this send? You aren’t good enough. You aren’t smart enough. You are supposed to be striving for perfection here. Students begin “learning” for the reward, or just give up completely because they can’t function under so much pressure to achieve, to compete.

When children are allowed to learn how their brains need and want to learn, they will have an easier time retaining and truly learning, as opposed to trying to teach them how we think they should learn.

“Children succeed in spite of competition, not because of it.” -Alfie Kohn

For a more in depth look at this concept of competition being a not-so-great thing to strive for, read the article linked above or right here.

How can we reduce the amount of competition flying around our homes and nurture untethered enjoyment in our kids?

    • Change our own perspective towards competition. Easier said than done, I know. It’s so easy to exist in a mentality that is the norm and that we have been conditioned in for most of our lives. But when we open up a space that allows us the opportunity to consider changing our perspective, through our own growth and journey, we understand how to best help our kids cope with and break down these social constructs (as well as helping ourselves). I often feel this achievement mindset seeping into my actions. “Why am I even doing this? No one will find it useful. This other person has so much more knowledge than I do.” That’s not a healthy mindset.
    • Acknowledge and address when our children are feeling powerless. What makes a child feel powerless and how to combat that deserves its own article. When our children feel powerless, they may act in ways that we deem unacceptable. What behavior really is, though, is communication. What are they communicating to us through their “wildness” in certain moments? Behind every unwanted behavior is an unmet need. If they seem to want constant, undivided attention even when you feel like you are giving them your all already, maybe they need attention in a different way. Maybe they are so out of sorts and needy because they are carrying around a weight that is too heavy for their little bodies and they need a good cry, a release, or even just the knowledge that we will be gentle and loving even when they feel most unlovable. (This isn’t saying that we have to be the epitome of patience and gentleness. We are humans, not robots, after all.)
    • We can play with our children in a way that gives them power. Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen offers some helpful examples to use to play with kids in a way that encourages them to act out and almost secrete their fears, anxieties, and heartaches. Once that junk is out of their bodies, fully, they are free to be themselves again. Stuffing down emotions is heavy stuff, especially for kids. Play in a way that makes them feel good and gives them power and you will slowly chip away at the trauma they carry. This play usually leads to a big unpacking of emotions, especially if it is rough and tumble play, so be prepared for tears.
    • Nurture that emotional unloading through staylistening. Hand in Hand Parenting has a great tool called staylistening. You can read about it here. The most important note with staylistening is that it’s ok to talk about the thing that upset them. Some people say that mentioning the upset makes a child start crying all over again. It doesn’t technically make them cry because they already needed to cry. It just gives them permission to cry. Yes, they cry more, but that’s because they still need to. When they’ve poured all of that hurt out of their bodies, only then will they feel validated and heard and ready to move forward. Just like in this article talking about the difference between asking if a child is ok or telling them they are ok, it’s always better to ask, even if that means a big cry is coming.
    • When choosing games to play, why not try cooperative games? There are so many cool cooperative games out there that encourage the players to unite and work towards a common goal rather than competing against each other. When children see each other as teammates, they are more inclined to share their knowledge and skills with their partners rather than withholding information because they see their competitor’s failure as their own success (because the only way they can win is if the other person loses). Of course, I’m not saying there is no room for competition ever. I think it would be impossible to avoid it when it’s so prevalent. But what’s the harm in minimizing competition wherever possible, especially for very young kids who don’t have the capability of separating losing from their own self-worth? Children can still be motivated, productive members of society without constantly competing against others. And if they do want to participate in competitive sports, that’s ok too. They just might need extra support in the winning/losing/self-worth department. Or they might not. Every child is different. 
    • Stop giving positive reinforcement of behaviors in the form of rewards. Wait, what?? If you are new to this concept, I’m sure that sounds ridiculous to stop rewarding “good” behavior. Addressing behaviors does just that… addresses behaviors only. It does nothing to address how a child feels, how they learn, why they are struggling, why they are feeling competitive. When someone is constantly trying to achieve for external rewards, they slowly and devastatingly lose their desire to do things because of intrinsic motivation. “What’s in this for me?” might be their new thoughts when doing things they once enjoyed, and not necessarily in a selfish way. What’s in it for them could be: feeling important, a boost in self-esteem (dangerous territory when your self-esteem depends on the approval of others), a valuable prize. All of these things are very conditional. If they are painting so they can get your approval and a “good job,” they are creating to please someone else, which is ok sometimes, like making a gift for someone. But when they stop doing things for their own enjoyment, I think they lose a little bit of themselves in the process.
    • Allow space for a child to do the things they enjoy without any judgement about how they are doing it. What I mean by this is to give them literal space. If they are drawing, let them draw. Don’t fawn over their work as the most amazing masterpiece you’ve ever seen. That’s too much pressure to perform! Watch this TED talk with Eat, Pray, Love writer Elizabeth Gilbert on the pressure to top your last works. The same holds true for children in its own way. Don’t bribe them with money and prizes for scoring x amount of baskets in a game or getting “good” grades. Instead encourage them to find what they love and to dig into that in whatever way that makes their insides light up with joy and excitement (even if the thing they love has competitive elements). That’s where true self-esteem, skill, and learning will blossom.

A competitive spirit isn’t a bad thing. It means the child is driven. What’s important to consider is what they are driven by. Is it a need to feel valued? A need to get that praise and those rewards? People can be driven and successful in many ways without a single speck of competition. The competition will always be there, business speaking, but there is always room for everyone. Children will still have plenty of opportunities to learn about winning and losing and competing because it is part of our society. But as the saying goes, everything in moderation.

Creating a collaborative space for our kids will teach them to share some of their skills and knowledge with others, resulting in helping everyone succeed. And what a beautiful world that would be with everyone aiming to lift each other up, supporting each other, while also believing in ourselves and our own worth because of who we are rather than what we can achieve.

 

The Parent Collaboratory was created to nurture growth in parents and children. This is a space where you are accepted right where you are. Everyone wants the very best for their children and we do what we can with the tools that we have. Parenting doesn’t come with a manual, but it should come with an open mind and a willingness to consider new ideas. When I write about these topics, they are always an attempt to dissect ideas, never a judgement of you, the parent. I support you.

I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on the topic. I want this to be as safe a space as possible to have conversations that make us pause, think, and grow. Any inflammatory comments will be removed. Thank you for being here!!

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