My kids live and breathe competition.
Sure, my kids compete in the backyard with “epic” soccer matches, footraces, and Ninja Warrior inspired gymnastic feats.
They compete in sports, and have kept track of the little league box scores since T-ball. They compete over who can read the newspaper first on Sunday morning so they can check out the competition for their favorite pro teams.
And of course they take board games and video games very seriously. If you haven’t ever seen a game of “Life Junior” come to fisticuffs, just visit my house on a Tuesday afternoon.
But it goes far beyond that.
My kids race to the bathroom, throwing punches and sweeping legs so they can be the first one to wash hands/brush teeth/etc. They compete to see who can be the last to finish a popsicle and the first to finish a bowl of cereal. Because first is the best.
This is not “just” a post about sibling rivalry. That extends far past what I’m focused on here. My real concern for the competitive nature I see in my kids is what happens outside of our family. Outside of our house. Inside school, yes. But also inside of them.
But first, a story.
There are certainly tears from the eyes on the second (and gasp, third) place finisher in our house. But they (slowly) get over that. Throughout all of the only one who has a bad taste in her mouth at the end of the day is me. The kids move on, but competition makes my skin crawl.
My own experience with competition-6th grade I was super competitive an then I just wasn’t. I channeled John McEnroe on the soccer field for a solid year. I broke down when my team lost and was elated when my team won. It felt so deeply connected to my core being that competition started to wear on me. Then I made a 180. The social and internal consequences were just too much for me, and this is what concerns me about my children’s over-the-top competitive natures.
How is competition affecting my kids-socially and mentally?
My skin starts to crawl a little bit (or a lot) when I see one of my children initiate a competition. It’s bad enough when they do these at home, and I’m just biding time until I have to put someone’s broke ego back together. (While also acknowledging the victor’s efforts). I am there to witness those happenings. It’s the ones I can’t see-and the consequences that follow-which make my skin crawl.
I worry about how competition affect them socially-“What if they are hyper-competitive like this in school?” (They are, so what does that mean?).
Also, “What if losing a competition makes them feel bad about themselves like it made me feel?” (It does, and that stinks.)
On the flip side, “What is winning makes them feel they are better than the people that lose?” (I hope it doesn’t, but I’m not sure).
Each of my kids is trying to find her/his place is the order. Does coming in first mean that they are the best? Does finishing last mean they are anything but? We are all searching for where we fit in the world. Perhaps competition is just another way for them to explore this and learn a bit more about who they are.
Can we use competition for good?
My kids haven’t had a lasting traumatic experience with competition yet aside from the occasional minor loss. (Again, they are Patriots fans after all.) Maybe one day it will hit them hard like it hit me, but maybe not. My husband is as competitive now as he was when he was 7 years old. And it works for him. So that got me thinking, can competition, if balanced, actually be a good thing?
I’ve watched my husband’s competitive nature drive him to work hard, persevere through difficulties, and strive to improve himself. So maybe it is possible that my kids can use their competitive drives to fuel their ambitions. It is up to me as a parent to help them do this while not allowing their self esteem-or their peers’ self images-to become collateral damage
The opposite of competition is…
Technically the opposite of competition is cooperation. When I think of it this way, I start to understand why my children’s competitive nature bothers me so much. But it also gives me a point to help my children-and myself-find some sort of balance in this arena.
My own negative experience with being a competitive child has clouded my view of my children’s reality. And this happens of so often to us as parents. It is so incredibly easy to say “don’t do what I did. Don’t be who I was because it didn’t work out for me.” That’s not fair.
What’s a non-competitive mom to do?
When I decided to turn my back on competition, I became the ultimate team player, often to the point of self sacrifice. I won’t really want my kids to do that, either. For right now, my kids are going to be the competitive little humans they are. Maybe they will take after my husband and stay like that forever, or maybe they will become bleeding hearts like myself. Who knows?
Either way, I believe that my job is to help them find balance so that their competitive spirits can be nurtured without extinguishing cooperative checks.
My kids are competitive 100% of the time, so I’m working with them to foster their cooperative spirit, too. Maybe 20% of the time that will peek through. Then again, it took me until 6th grade to realize winning wasn’t all that important to me. But some may say that I went in the opposite direction. And that’s imbalance, too.
They work hard, try their best, and get up when they fall. They are struggling to figure out where they stand in the world. And for kids that takes a lot of work and a lot of different scenarios.
So maybe competition isn’t that bad after all.