• Why Kids Are So Competitive -- and How Parents Can Teach Fairness

    Why Kids Are Feeling the Pressure
    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 Idol, Survivor, and America'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).
    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 growing up -- 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.  It is highly likely that your child will have to go head-to-head with others as some point in their life. Sometimes it'll be healthy fun; other occasions may be tough or even painful. But, in the end, knowing how to face competition honestly and with a good attitude can set kids up for a happy, fulfilling life -- the best victory of all.

    Here are some smart steps you can take to tame over-the-top competition and teach fair-mindedness.

    • Emphasize personal best. Encourage your 7-year-old to improve his swim time, not to beat the rest of the swimmers; urge your 14-year-old to get a higher score on his next algebra test, not a perfect 100.
    • Buy thoughtfully. When kids ask for the latest gear, make sure it's not something they can use to show up their peers. If they have a good reason for wanting a new gadget or outfit, offer to split the cost or buy it for their birthday or a holiday.
    • Discuss your family's values. If your child complains that other kids are getting extra time for tests, explain that special accommodations are designed for those who truly need them. Anybody else who uses them is cheating -- and your family doesn't cheat.
    • Talk about role models. Point out when two opposing football players collide then help each other up. Likewise, call attention to a player who celebrates a sack with an unsportsmanlike dance.
    • Ask the right questions. Don't give subliminal messages about winning. Ask what your child is learning at school, not how she did on tests; ask how he felt about the game, not who won; ask whether the party was fun, not who was there and what they wore.
    • Refuse to keep score. If you say you're jealous of Aunt Janet's new car, you'll teach kids to judge others by what they have. Cheer for your kids, but don't analyze missed opportunities or keep a log of their race times.
    With Younger Children:
    • Encourage children to assume different roles in their pretend play.
    • Help them express their own feelings and encourage them to listen to other people's feelings.
    • Try to link one child's feelings to another child's by reminding them of their own past experiences in similar situations.
    • One way to teach fairness is to explain what a particular rule is to a child and how it applies to him as well as to others, emphasizing that his rights will be respected, too. For example, rather than simply saying "There's no hitting," we can explain, "I won't let anyone hurt you and I won't let you hurt anyone, either."

    By Cynthia Hanson, Ph.D., Originally published in the October 17, 2008, issue of Family Circle magazine.