Your child races up the stairs. You’ve never seen him or her so excited about brushing teeth before. But the act of brushing teeth isn’t what has your child so excited. “I’m going to beat you!” he or she shouts. That’s when it hits you. Your child has discovered competition.
Although it’s completely normal for 5- and 6-year-olds to embrace competition, it can be a challenging time for parents. To make matters even more complicated, there isn’t a consensus among child experts about whether or not competition is beneficial for children.
Essentially, there are two competing schools of thought with regards to competition in children. Led by Alfie Kohn, one line of thinking argues that any and all competition is harmful for children. Advocated by Dr. Sylvia Rimm, a psychologist who specializes in child development, the other school argues that competition can be beneficial, provided that it is presented in a healthy way.
Although Kohn’s group makes valid points, a world entirely without competition is simply unrealistic. Whether you want it to happen or not, your child will have to compete for things like scholarships, college admittance, and jobs. Due to this, it’s important for parents to inspire healthy competition in children, rather than isolate them from it entirely.
Consider these tips for helping your child gain value from competition:
Create the Right Environment
When your child starts to show a competitive streak, it’s OK to place him or her in competitive environments, but those competitions should have an end. A chess event or soccer game is an excellent setting because, while these competitive environments place children under stress, the stress and pressure is finite. Competitive environments become detrimental when pressure and stress is placed on children for extended periods of time, such as in preparing for a standardized test that is two years away.
Instead of presenting a competition to your child as an event that can only be won or lost, consider framing it as a problem that must be solved. If his or her team is playing another basketball team, the opponents should not be described as an enemy to be conquered but rather a problem that must be solved. This way, if your child’s team is not successful, then you can discuss how the team can continue to work on the problem for the next game, as opposed to sulking over the loss.
Cooperate When Possible
Research has shown that competing as a part of a team or a club rather than individually is healthier for children. Not only are children competing with their friends, which makes them more likely to enjoy it, but they are also learning valuable lessons like how to work within a larger group. In addition, working as a team can help disperse the pressure so that your child doesn’t feel the need to carry the entire burden.
Learn from Failure
Inevitably, your child won’t succeed at some point. Help him or her understand that it’s something that happens to everyone, and the important thing is how you use what you learned in order to improve for next time. Again, remind your child that simply because he or she lost an event or was on a team that failed doesn’t mean this is a permanent situation. Remember to frame the event or sport as a complicated problem that she or he has to continue to work hard at in order to solve it.