Whenever the subject of competitiveness among children comes up, I have a brief flashback to one of my son’s soccer games as a child. He absolutely loved sports, especially soccer, so it was always fun to watch his games, cheering in excitement at his every move. There was one particular game, however, that I remember sitting near a rather competitive father who at one point in the game yelled out to his son, “Trip him!” Did I mention they were six?
Dr. Steve Sanders is professor and director of the School of Physical Education, Wellness and Sports Studies at the University of South Florida. Dr. Sanders is closely involved with teacher preparation programs working to prepare teachers to assist children in becoming physically active for a lifetime. We consulted with him in reworking our Primrose Thumbs Up® physical fitness program. I concur with Dr. Sanders’ opinion that “children have a limited ability to think in terms of ‘team’ or competition until about age eight when they have developed beyond Piaget’s stage of Egocentrism.” They are still at a very concrete stage in their thinking and their notion of competition is very much related to who has the most “stuff” – toys, games, food, etc.
As parents, it’s more beneficial for us to work on helping our children understand the value of cooperating and learning to play nicely and not focus on competition. It’s better for them to encounter this when they are developmentally capable of understanding that competition also includes wanting to do your personal best. Unfortunately, it can be tough listening to another parent brag on his or her child’s accomplishments. It takes a lot of self control not to respond in kind, but when we do, it’s obvious that we as parents may be the ones who are competing.
Children under the age of five don’t understand competition; they are just learning what it means to be on a team. So the best place to focus as parents and teachers is on what it takes for a team to work toward a common goal. For example, perhaps different classrooms at school are competing with one another in collecting cans for a food drive. They understand they are comparing numbers of cans; the focus isn’t on which class is “better,” but on how much the school as a whole will be able to help others. Below are some quick tips that can help balance competitiveness among both siblings and classmates.
• Focus on strengths and interests of each child. What is each child good at and what does he or she enjoy? As parents, we sometimes try to make things the same in order to be fair to each child. If one child is a great runner and loves to run, this can be his or her area of concentration. You just have to do a little self reflection and make sure that you don’t send the message that you don’t think more highly of one skill over the other. As a parent/teacher, make sure you are listening to what interests your child so you can nurture these interests.
• Promote leadership skills. What makes a good leader? Is it the child at the front of the line or is it the child who can get everyone in the classroom to form a line? The child who can show compassion and understand someone else’s perspective will be the real leader, not the child who pushes his way to the front of the line.
• Let kids be kids. At this age, children pick up hobbies because they have a true passion for them. However, they sometimes grow out of these interests as they mature so you don’t want to lock them in. As children experiment with adult roles, they will focus on one idea for a while and then move on to another. How many children do you know who have gone through fireman or ballerina stages? Sometimes these are lasting interests, but often they are not. They are trying out different interests looking for what feels like something they want to really focus on. You’ll know when your child finds a good fit. If your child persists in wanting to play a particular sport or musical instrument over any other activity, it could be an emerging lifetime passion.