Is Competition Hurting Your Kids?

Kids face more competition than ever, and that’s not always a bad thing. Competing at something they’re passionate about helps build self-esteem, motivation and persistence. The problems come when the only thing they’re passionate about is winning.

Overly competitive kids often lose their love of the activity, even if they were passionate about it to begin with. “When there’s no prize, they don’t want to do it anymore,” says Wendy S. Grolnick, psychology professor at Clark University and co-author of Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids: Dealing With Competition While Raising a Successful Child.

And while being a winner may make kids popular (at least temporarily), being overly competitive can have the opposite effect, according to Susan Newman, social psychologist and author of The Case for the Only Child. “Kids don’t like kids who don’t share the ball,” she says. “It’s a sure way to lose friends, and it’s damaging to the team. You’re not able to be a team player if you have to be the star.”

The consequences of extreme competitiveness aren’t just social. Unchecked, it can lead to long-term problems, such as chronic stress and low self-esteem. Here’s how to ensure competition is a healthy, not harmful, experience for your kids.

1. Change the focus.

When your kids come home from playing a game, do you automatically ask, “Who won?” Don’t. Kids hear it as “Winning is everything.” Worse yet, they think it’s how you measure their worth, according to Grolnick. “They narrow in on that: Not only is it a nice thing when I win, I’m a good person if I win. And I’m a bad person if I don’t. They think you don’t like them as much when they don’t win.” So focus on the game itself, not the outcome. Ask how the game went, who did what and how they played.

2. Have them share, not hoard, their strength.

One way to keep competition in perspective is to encourage your kids to share their abilities with kids who aren’t as talented or skilled. Have them hold a practice session with the younger kids in the neighborhood, or offer to tutor kids in the subject they excel in. By helping others improve their performance, your kids will see that their talent has value beyond the trophy or award.

3. Beware of stress.

For many kids, competition leads to harmful levels of stress, and neither you nor they can see it, according to Grolick. “There’s a lot of burnout in terms of sports,” she says. “It looks like they’re enjoying it, but it’s very stressful.”

Watch for the classic signs of stress: headaches, trouble sleeping, stomachache, appetite loss, and depression. A less obvious symptom: They are unable to stop pushing themselves.

4. Don’t force competition.

Parents need to let kids find the activities they want to excel at. Pushing them to compete at something they’re not passionate about is futile, according to Newman. “You may get a surge of competitiveness, but in the long run, there’s not much you can do. Down the line they may develop their own sense of wanting to compete for things they’re passionate about.”

5. Check your own competitiveness.

Parents who get heated up and vocal at their kids’ games send a strong, damaging, message: The thing to get passionate about is winning, not playing your best. Another bad modeling example is when you talk about your own performance in negative terms, according to Newman. When you come home from the gym, say “I lifted 5 pounds more than yesterday” rather than “I can’t even lift 20 pounds.”

“You need to focus on effort,” says Newman. When you have a positive attitude about being competitive, whether it’s against your own goals, or other people, you’ll teach your kids the meaning of positive competition.

About the Author

Gail Belsky is an editorial consultant and writer, and an adjunct professor of journalism. A 12-year veteran of women’s publications, she was a senior editor at Parents magazine and an executive editor at both Working Mother magazine and Time Inc.’s custom publishing division, where she created and edited two women’s service magazines for Target stores. Belsky worked on the launch of Time Inc.’s All You magazine and was an editorial consultant at Meredith Corp., where she created four custom publications for American Baby magazine. Most recently, she wrote a book for women, entitled The List: 100 Ways to Shake Up Your Life (Seal Press 2008).


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