Kids have a natural love of competition. Tovah Klein, author of “How Toddlers Thrive,” told NPR that the drive to compete develops in children around the ages of 4 or 5, when they start learning how to categorize.
“And once kids start comparing,” Klein said, “they say, 'Hey, wait a minute. There are people in the world faster than me. I want to be the fastest.' Or, 'I want to be the biggest.' Or, 'I want to have the most.’ ”
Not all experts agree, however, on whether that competitive drive is good or bad.
Alfie Kohn, the author of several parenting books and well-known critic of the competition culture, wrote, “Competition is destructive to children's self-esteem, it interferes with learning, sabotages relationships, and isn't necessary to have a good time.”
Ashley Merryman, who with Po Bronson co-authored the book “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing,” disagreed. “We have placed too much focus on the importance of comforting children,” she told CNN. She said, “Doing too much for your kid and protecting children from failure” is the worst thing a parent could do.
Whether or not competition is harmful, children have a natural tendency to compete, and will likely face it at some point in their lives. Here are the do's and don'ts of encouraging healthy competition without creating a monster.
Don't focus on winning
Not everyone can win every competition, whether it be athletic, academic, or just for fun. By focusing on the event itself, rather than the outcome, children can both try to do their best and not be devastated if they lose.
“It's not all about winning,” Kenneth Barish, a clinical associate professor of psychology at Weill Medical College at Cornell University, told NPR. “It's also about teamwork. And it's about effort … becoming a better player.”
David Johnson, professor emeritus of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, suggested that parents, coaches and teachers not inflate the benefits of winning or coming in first.
“If the stakes are low, the emphasis is placed upon sheer enjoyment of the activity,” Johnson told the Deseret News.
Those who didn't win the game, score the most points or come in first should still feel like they had an enjoyable experience and got something valuable out of the activity.
Let kids learn from failure
Since life will inevitably bring failure at some point, experts recommend letting kids develop coping skills in a low-risk situation.
“Parents see failure as a source of pain for their child instead of an opportunity for him to say, 'I can deal with this. I'm strong,’ ” says Madeline Levine, Ph.D., author of “The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids,” in a Parent.com article.
While it can be devastating to watch your child suffer, teachers like Jessica Lahey have learned that children perform better when given the chance to fail and accept the consequences.
“Year after year, my 'best' students — the ones who are happiest and successful in their lives — are the students who were allowed to fail, held responsible for missteps, and challenged to be the best people they could be in the face of their mistakes,” Lahey wrote in The Atlantic.
Don't make your love conditional on their success
While this may seem like a no-brainer, parents can inadvertently send the wrong message to their kids.
A recent Deseret News article discussed a study by Harvard University that found children and teenagers are three times more likely to agree with the statement, “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”
“It’s good for kids to value excellence as long as they don’t feel valued only for their excellence,” Sylvia Rimm, director of the Family Achievement Clinic in Cleveland, wrote for the clinic's website. “Parents’ messages that 'we like children who win, who are the smartest, and who excel,' should be changed to 'we like children who try, who are responsible, and who make positive and sincere efforts.’ ”
Rimm pointed out that highly competitive families can sometimes instill a belief in the child that winning is associated with their self-worth, which can make future failures impossible to handle positively.
Have fun and focus on priorities
Parents don't need to protect their kids from the stress of competition or the failure of losing, but they should make sure that the situation — a soccer game, a spelling bee, a board game or simply getting good grades — is a fun and positive experience.
“When asked whether they would rather be warming the bench on a winning team or playing regularly on a losing team, nearly 90 percent of children chose the latter,” reported the Deseret News, referencing a Michigan State study.
Kids will compete naturally, and want to be the best, but parents can help children understand that competition is not just about winning; it's about having fun and learning important skills, psychologist David Johnson told the New York Times.
“By taking the emphasis off winning and putting it on mastery,” Johnson said, “the individual and the team — classroom, country, world — will grow in the process.”