Why Kids Are So Competitive—and How Parents Can Teach Fairness


By: , – Cynthia Hanson, Family Circle
  :  7 comments   :  7,635 Views

Whether it's sports, test scores, or the latest clothes and gadgets, kids these days feel the pressure to come out on top. But they need to learn that life doesn't have to be one big amazing race. Here's what parents can teach instead.

Being competitive is part of the American way, right up there with having an independent and pioneering spirit. "But kids are more intent than ever about winning at all costs -- in sports, in school, and in their social circles," says Michele Borba, EdD, author of 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know (Jossey-Bass). "Competition is different and more dangerous than it used to be. Worse yet, young children are now being drawn into it, and they really can't cope with the pressure."
What's going on? For starters, kids are soaking up the never-ending reports of athletes cheating their way to victory by taking steroids -- and then lying about it. What's more, shows like American IdolSurvivor, andAmerica's Next Top Model reinforce the idea that being number one is all that matters. "We have a whole generation of kids who fear they're going to get voted off," says Wendy Grolnick, PhD, coauthor of Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids (Prometheus Books). 
The flip side of that fear is kids' false hope. "When people appear out of nowhere to achieve national celebrity, kids think, 'I can do that too, and if I don't, then I'm a nobody,'" explains Susan Newman, PhD, author of The Book of No (McGraw-Hill). Reality TV judges press home the message: On the season finale of American Idol last May, Simon Cowell declared, "You've got to hate your opponent." But, as Newman points out, "Kids shouldn't be taught to hate their competitors. They need to learn how to cooperate and support one another because team players are the people who succeed in the real world."
Parents have also become key influences in this high-stakes game. "Moms and dads have always lived vicariously through their children," says Newman, "but now those dreams are fed by images of stardom and celebrity." To that end, parents force kids into advanced classes and onto elite travel teams, and hire tutors and private coaches to ensure their kids' success because being just "okay" isn't enough anymore.
Yet the pressure to compete, whatever its source, can lead to paralyzing stress and can program tweens and teens for self-defeating perfectionism. "Kids may set the bar so high they end up never being satisfied with their performance," Borba explains. "They can also become reluctant to try new things -- an essential part of adolescence -- out of fear they'll make a mistake."
The good news is you can do a lot to help your child handle the heat, win with grace, and rebound from loss. After all, healthy competition, with realistic expectations and an emphasis on striving for excellence, is good for all kids. It educates them about discipline, time management, and goal-setting. Take a look at how parents can bring back the balance -- and teach the right kind of winning attitude.
Read more on how to teach your kids to play fair.
More From Family Circle: 
Are your kids competitive? How have you taught them to play fair?

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  • 7
    My daughter doesn't compete against others, but she does have an unhealthy competition against herself that I am dealing with. She cries if she gets one problem wrong on her tests, yet she is doing school work two grades above her age level. After seeing me always watching my calories, she started worrying about her weight (7 years old and only 40 pounds). She is basically afraid to do new things for fear of doing it wrong. With other kids, she cooperates, but expects them to follow the rules and only really gets upset if they don't.

    My daughter learned a lot of these things from what I was doing. I was over-competitive against myself and it was passed on to her. I had to adjust my life to teach her to not-care, but eat healthy and be happy instead. My daughter and I are on this journey together. I think as parents, we don't realize what vices we pass to our kids. - 3/11/2014   6:46:36 AM
    Very interesting; I always learn something. - 4/18/2012   10:12:56 AM
  • 5
    I don't want to teach our kids to hate competitors or anyone. I never did like competitive activities, and preferred that my kids strive for excellence and the experience itself, not perfection or winning per se. For those who are appalled by participation ribbons and non-competitive sports, maybe there should be options for BOTH competitions with scores and winners, and non-competitions for the fun, physical activity, team building, etc, with participation ribbons for all. Yeah, I know in the "real world", the business world, effort isn't rewarded unless it has measurable results, but I don't find that fair or reasonable, either. Why do we not value and recognize effort?

    In our house, fair was a silly word. When someone said something wasn't fair, we'd tell them the [Ohio State] Fair is in August, and that's the only fair around here. We strove for things being equitable instead of fair, in part because what was appropriate for one kid's age was not appropriate for the other's. We strove for balance, so the situation would be equitable, not perfectly "fair."

    That said, my son went on to compete in high school and college and he was happy to simply place 15th in national competition, saying the experience of competing with and meeting athletes from colleges all over the US, and the trips to new cities were the best reward. My daughter is noncompetitive, pursuing personal goals and not comparing herself to others for the most part. I still have her Participation ribbon from the only race she ever entered, in elementary school. - 4/17/2012   1:10:41 PM
  • 4
    When my kids were little, my ex and his family would sometimes make comments that I loved one more than the other. I had a fit - there is no competition for love - and made sure in every action they both knew they were loved. They both got gifts on each other's birthday, even.

    I strongly believe in striving to be the best we can be because we love ourselves, not because we hate and want to beat an opponent, and tried to raise them with that mindset. - 4/17/2012   12:18:58 PM
  • 3
    I agree with you guys too. It's important to teach kids to try their best & accept defeat if it happens. One key thing that I've learned and teach my kids is to learn why they failed. Not so it doesn't happen again (because failure can happen over & over...which is the persistence lesson to teach them), but what can they learn from it. See it as an opportunity to say "I've been there & lost, but I learned from it."

    I am in very strong agreement that "participation ribbons" and stuff like that are absolutely ridiculous. Kids need to learn to be graceful losers, and most importantly, learn from the loss. - 4/17/2012   11:07:15 AM
  • 2
    I agree Carol. I think we are trying too hard to reverse the "pushing" of the past and are going overboard with the fairness. Unfortunately, life isn't fair and we need to teach that to our children also. There has to be a "happy medium!" - 4/17/2012   9:46:10 AM
  • 1
    When I read the title of this article I was set out to disagree with you . But I think overall, we might be closer in view points than I expected. I do agree that there are over the top coaches and parents and that they are going too far with pushing the kids where more injuries and occasionally death are happening today. That does upset me and it does seem to be seeping into younger and younger age groups. But I also worry about the other side of this issue where some are taking out all winning, not keeping score, not promoting or rewarding excellence and pushing "participation ribbons" for everyone! I don't want that stuff either. I guess it's a fine balance btwn the two sides that I think is best for our kids. I think it's ok to want to be your best in a sport, work hard, want to "win", but also be gracious when you don't win and still realize that there is more to life than winning a game or being the best athlete on your team, etc. - 4/17/2012   7:12:50 AM

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