Competitive parents, competitive children: who wins?

Learning to be a gracious winner and loser is an important trait to nurture

Competitiveness in children is often seen as a dirty word and evokes the image of an aggressive child who has to be the "best" and "first" in everything and can't tolerate losing or failing.

Competitiveness is not a bad thing; it encourages your child to achieve their potential and can foster skills that prepare them for adult life, but it becomes a problem when the goal of winning is all that counts or when your child is prepared to do anything – cheat, lie and take advantage of others – to achieve that goal.

Helping your child develop a healthy attitude to competition is something you can teach from an early age and it’s important to allow your child to experience the full range of emotions – negative and positive – that go with winning, losing and competing.

It's normal to feel upset, angry and jealous when you don't win, and children need to learn how to handle those emotions, recover themselves and move on. Similarly, feeling happy and proud of success is good, but being boastful and gloating is off-putting. You want them to be gracious winners and losers and to experience, win or lose, the sense of fulfilment that comes with trying your best as an individual and the positive, and sometimes frustrating, experiences of working as part of a team.


Parents’ attitudes

Parents can start by looking at their own attitudes to competitiveness, winning and losing and the messages they give their children. Maybe the father shouting at his small son for being a “loser” after an under-7s game thought he was being motivational and encouraging. But the rich learning experiences associated with participation, teamwork and camaraderie were completely lost on this man who saw the game only in terms of who won or lost.

If a child learns to only associate being "first" and "best" with parental acceptance and love, their self-esteem and mental health may suffer if they fail to meet expectations. And, if a child internalises the message that winning is all that matters, they may avoid potentially enriching and fun experiences for fear of failure.

On the other hand, a child whose parents don’t support or push them enough may never fulfil their potential and won’t learn to associate effort with success. Or, if a parent openly says that competitiveness is a bad thing, the child may feel conflicted and try to bury these normal feelings, leading to anxiety and stress.

Furthermore, parents who give up easily, make excuses for their own poor performance or blame others when they don’t succeed will pass on those habits to their children.

Some parents try to protect their children from the negative emotions associated with losing, but the idea that “everyone is a winner” and should go home with a medal can set a child up for disappointment in later life. Yes, participation, effort, motivation and trying your best should be rewarded but it’s also important to prepare your child for the reality of the cut and thrust of everyday life.

Life is not always fair and it’s better for a child to learn how to lose from an early age in the safe and supportive environment of home.

Positive behaviours

If you have a child who is over- or under-competitive, you can teach and model more positive behaviours at home. Set up games and situations that play on different strengths so that your child can safely experience the sometimes charged emotions of competing individually and as part of a team.

Encourage your child to understand that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. Simple board and card games are a good start, but don’t allow a child to “win” just to avoid a huff. Encourage your child to participate in a range of activities: team, solo, competitive and non-competitive (choir, music, art, scouts) so that the goal is not always winning.

Finally, positive competitiveness does not have to involve other people and can be good for your mental wellbeing.

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has consistently shown the positive mental health benefits of having an activity, whether it’s knitting, athletics, painting or walking which you enjoy and continue to challenge yourself to improve on your own personal goals.

He has also shown that the most successful people, whether in business or sports, are motivated intrinsically from within themselves to succeed, rather than measuring their success solely against others.

Dr Sarah O’Doherty is a clinical psychologist