I know I’m not alone in worrying about the width and length of my child’s competitive streak. It’s hardly unusual for a child to be competitive. Nor is it bad. But there is a healthy competition and a unhealthy competition, says Jim Thompson, founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance. “Remember that comparison is inevitable and a normal human instinct,” says Hilary Levey Friedman, author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. “It is a skill to admire qualities in others, but also to be able to pinpoint an area in which one excels.” That’s all very well and good, but what am I supposed to do to better manage my child’s competitive nature? Luckily, she and some other experts shared these five ideas.
1. Look in the mirror!
Examine your own competitive nature. Maybe you aren’t into chess, soccer, Minecraft, or whatever your child’s passion is. But consider the subtle ways you might be influencing that competitive streak. I picked this one up from sports psychologist Joel Fish’s book 101 Ways to be a Terrific Sports Parent, which reminded me to look inward. I’m not a team sports person, but I am notoriously competitive in my career and in the kitchen (lobster bisque, anyone?). How I model my own disappointments will directly influence him; next time my story is rejected or the pork roast is overdone, I’ll incorporate “win some, lose some” talk into dinner conversation.
2. Cross train
Find other areas to channel that competitive urge into places where your child can pursue victory. If she likes an individual activity such as chess, expose her to team sports as well. And vice versa. That’s the advice I got from Friedman. “That might make him or her more understanding of others,” she told me. “Or provide an outlet for that energy without the negative (and albeit sometimes positive) impact of being on a team.” For the team experience, nudge your nonathletic child toward theater camp instead of a soccer clinic.
3. Say no; it’s okay
Don’t forget the competition between parents, that is, the peer pressure to compete. Are you signing up for a stressful show choir programs because your friend Heather signed her son up for it? Or two soccer teams in the fall because your brother’s kids are doing that? Or because your kid wants to do both? “I should have been smarter about realizing that less is more, and that it is not a good idea to accept every invitation,” said Mark Hyman, author of Until it Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports, a book inspired by his son’s injuries from playing too much baseball. Don’t be afraid to take a season off; if your child has a chance at playing for the San Francisco Giants, his chances are not going to be ruined by missing one season of Little League.
4. Make the grade
If grades are more important to you than the outcome of her tennis match or whether all that singing practice lands him a solo, then create guidelines to emphasize what needs to be a priority. Less than an 80 on that math test? Skip Little League practice and have them review the material they were supposed to have learned before the test. “Many high schools have rules like this,” Hyman reminded me. “You can’t play on an interscholastic team unless you have a certain grade point average.”
5. Big picture
Never lose sight of the big picture. If you are frustrated by how your child’s competitive streak is manifesting right now, try to look back and forward. Remember when your high diving champion was 3 and refused to go in the swimming pool? And you fretted over this issue for weeks? Big picture: Childhood is ever-evolving; kids are ever-changing.