Did you ever win a race or a spelling bee? Do you remember how you felt?
Research has shown that these “winning” moments may have a lasting effect: In a study of over 1,200 successful women, psychologist Sylvia Rimm of the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine found that they most frequently recalled winning in competition as a positive childhood experience.
Under certain conditions, succeeding in a competitive environment is linked to general success and happiness. Oscar winners, for instance, live an average of four years longer than nominees. Kids who were popular in high school (thus succeeding in a competitive social environment) earn an average of 10% more than unpopular kids.
Yet, for some children, competition can actually reduce the motivation to succeed. As research from the Davidson Institute for Talent Development points out, competition “is good for some, but it may result in a few winners and many losers.” Some students, especially those who are less motivated or who have a history of underachieving, “often have difficulty dealing with defeat.”
In other words, while competition can encourage certain kinds of kids, it can discourage others. And that doesn’t even account for the burnout and stress that often accompany the fight to be number one.
In this Tiger Mom age of highly competitive school admissions—and not just for college, either—parents are pushing their kids to new heights. This begs a few questions: Are you really doing your child a favor by going to great lengths to make sure he ends up in the top slot? If she’s supremely stressed out over track tournaments and AP tests … is that kind of self-motivation good or bad?
As the mantra goes, all things in moderation. Your job is to help your child succeed—but not at the expense of mental health. Here’s how to know if your kid is becoming too competitive:
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1. She’s Becoming a Braggart
Your kid needs to remember that she has many positive qualities aside from her in-the-moment winnings. Plus, on a more tangible level, you don’t want her to become ostracized by peers who resent the bragging.
What to do about it: Try to reinforce the attributes she should be proud of that go beyond the specific record that she broke or test she aced. When you give her a compliment, focus not on the “win,” per se, but on the admirable qualities that helped her get there, such as hard work, motivation and the fact that she didn’t give up even though she used to find this task difficult.
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2. He Gets Negative About Himself
Noam Schpancer, a professor of psychology at Otterbein University who studies child care and development, says that it’s possible to feel like a champion even when you’re statistically average. “Recent research in positive psychology shows that the sense of control and social connectedness afforded by high achievement can also be obtained by other means,” he says. Even if your child doesn’t consistently come in first, avoid letting him feel like he’s at the whim of something beyond his power.
What to do about it: If your child gets frustrated by losing, praise his effort and highlight the good things that he does. He might have struck out at bat, but you can point out how well he fielded the ball. If he’s getting demoralized at a certain competitive activity, you can also consider switching his focus from competition to skill-building and teamwork by choosing activities like drama, art or music.
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3. She Acts Out
With younger children, this may mean talking back, throwing a temper tantrum or shutting down. For older children, it could manifest as getting inordinately upset or making up excuses for losing. Not only is acting out unhealthy, it also risks alienating others, and it teaches the wrong lesson.
What to do about it: Your child needs to learn how to lose. Talk about what it means to be a gracious loser and, although it may pain you, practice what you preach. Case in point: Maybe you go all-out when you play checkers or you give her increasingly difficult math problems until she’s stumped. When she starts to act out, don’t give in. Work with her until she learns to control herself. Remember that it’s better that you’re the one dealing with this side of your child than someone else.
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4. He Cheats in Order to Win
This can range from literal cheating to changing or breaking the rules. Even if it’s only a board game or an assignment for an extracurricular activity, treat cheating as a serious offense. If this turns into a habit, it can easily snowball into larger issues.
What to do about it: In the short term, cheating calls for a strong talking-to and a punishment. In the long term, think about the messages that you’re sending. “There are important questions other than ‘who won?’ that are useful for a child—and a parent—to ask and answer,” says Schpancer. If you show irritation when he misses a shot in basketball or you compare him to his friends, you may send the message that your approval is contingent on achievement. Make it clear that you’re more proud of your child’s efforts than the end result.
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5. She Doesn’t Respect Her Competitors
Maybe she delights in trash-talking. Or perhaps she needs to convince herself that she’s better than other people by calling them stupid or cheaters. Teaching respect—even for those who are more talented—will help her flourish as a child and in her adult life.
What to do about it: Correct her when you hear trash-talking, and point out other people’s strengths in addition to her own. Ask her for examples of things she has in common with her competitors to establish that they’re equally worthwhile people. Going forward, encourage her to compete primarily against her own performance, so she learns to take pride in her own progress, as well as practice self-motivation.
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6. He’s Running Himself Ragged
Success may be sweet, but being happy and balanced is even sweeter. Signs that your child is too busy or stressed out: He’s always tired, he’s lost interest in things that used to be fun, he’s become moody or he’s stopped connecting with friends.
What to do about it: You don’t have to make him drop out of his honors classes or quit the swim team … yet. Instead, figure out: Does he love his activities or is he trying to pad his resume for college admissions? Yes, it’s a competitive world, but if you fear for your child’s sanity, make him choose at least one activity to drop and then see if the situation improves. If nothing else, guard his weekends, making sure that he has at least one day with a few hours of downtime.
-Written by Allison Kade, with reporting by Jessica Kraft