Is your child always the first one to sign up for any competition⏤a spelling bee, chess tournament, or running race? Or is your child the one who shies away from competition; perhaps preferring more cooperative or collaborative endeavors instead? Whether we (or our children) embrace competition or avoid it, the fact is that competition plays a large role in most of our lives. Whether it be on the playground or in the boardroom, competition is built into many aspects of daily life. One important role as parents, therefore, is to support our children in learning how to manage competition and all the intense emotions that can come with it.
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Where Does the Competitive Spirit Originate?
Where does the strive for competition originate? It seems that, from a young age, some children are almost innately more competitive in nature. Although psychologists classify competitiveness as a trait,1 its origins (like many aspects of human behavior) are most likely a mix of genetics and environment. Studies indicate that particular neurons seem to be responsible for an individual’s level of competitiveness. However, these neurons integrate information about the individual’s social environment and past experiences as well.2
Other studies show that the parental environment in which a child grows up may also influence their competitiveness. Research suggests that a parent’s level of ambition for their children may influence how willing children are to compete. For example, when a child’s parents are highly ambitious, children are more likely to enter a competition, even if their chances of winning are low.3 Taken together, these suggest that competitiveness is likely due to various genetic, social, and environmental factors.
The Pros and Cons of Competition in Childhood
Children may vary in their level of competitiveness, but they will all no doubt experience competition at some point in their childhood. In school settings, sports, and even at home, competition is all around them. Parents often wonder if the presence of competition in children’s lives is problematic or advantageous to their development. When looking at the research,4 it seems clear that competition has the potential to be both an enriching and stressful part of children’s lives.
Competition in all its forms has the possibility of providing children with many opportunities to build resilience in the face of challenges. When a child doesn’t fare well in a competition, they learn valuable coping skills in how to practice perseverance and cope with negative emotions. In studies of sports, research finds that competitiveness (among other characteristics) helps athletes learn to cope with difficult situations in a positive way.5 These skills, of course, can be translated beyond sports into other areas of life.
Similarly, competition sometimes brings with it the experience of failure. Although it is often our first instinct as parents to protect our children from failure, this experience can actually foster valuable coping skills. Through failure, children learn that we all face challenges and that sometimes it takes many tries and hard work in order to succeed. We can support our children through the experience of failure and make it a learning experience by helping them brainstorm ways to do things differently next time.6 Through competition and sometimes failure, children learn how to face difficult tasks and persevere.
Not all aspects of competition foster positive outcomes for children, however. When the stress prompted by competition becomes overwhelming, children’s mental well-being and performance can suffer.4 Well-known among psychological research is the concept of “optimal stress.” Research shows that the link between stress or anxiety and performance (usually in the context of competition) is best represented by a bell curve. That is, with too little anxiety, individuals tend to not perform very well, but under too much anxiety, their performance suffers as well.7 Finding the “just right” amount of stress or anxiety associated with competition is key. Each parent has to understand their child and their stress threshold to determine if the stress is overwhelming them. Psychologists suggest that parents can often tell if the stress of competition is affecting their child’s well-being by looking at their behavior. If the child seems extremely worried, irritable, or shows changes in sleeping or eating patterns, these could be signs of being overstressed.8
Finding a balance of competition that is motivating and skill-building yet not defeating for children seems to be the key. How children approach competition and their mindset can be influenced by parents. With our support, children can learn to approach competition in a way that garners the most benefit from it while protecting their mental health.
Progress Over Perfection:
Although competition is largely about winning and losing, helping children focus on their progress can be a helpful way to approach competition. Instead of a simple win-lose proposition, competition can be framed so that children are trying to do their personal best.9 In other words, even if they lose the spelling bee or running race, if they did better than their previous attempt, they have made progress. This type of approach not only keeps children motivated to keep improving but also fosters a growth mindset. That is, a mindset that focuses on the idea that improvement and growth (in any arena) are always possible.
When children don’t compete as well as they would have liked, it’s normal for them to feel disappointed or sad. Sometimes our first instinct in these situations is to brush aside these difficult feelings and try to immediately cheer up our children. This may inadvertently make them feel as though their emotions don’t really matter. Instead, spend some time empathizing with and validating your child’s feelings of disappointment.10 This doesn’t mean encouraging them to feel sad for days, but allowing them to voice their disappointment can help them move forward.
Competition plays a significant role in many aspects of life⏤academics, sports, careers, and more. Instead of attempting to shield children from it, we can guide them in understanding how to approach competition with a mindset that fosters growth and not apprehension. Ultimately, whether they win or lose, the life lessons gained in competition will influence their well-being and development.
Preview Blurb: Whether it’s a race on the playground or class rankings, children encounter competition often in their daily lives. Learning how to compete and manage the inevitable disappointments that come with it is a major task of childhood. Learn how you can help your child foster a healthy approach to competition that encourages growth while still supporting their mental health.
- Wang, H., Wang, L., Liu, C. (2018) Employee Competitive Attitude and Competitive Behavior Promote Job-Crafting and Performance: A Two-Component Dynamic Model. Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 9, 2018. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02223/full
- Neuroscience News (2022) Neurons That Drive Competition and Social Behavior Within Groups Identified. Neuroscience News, March 16, 2022. https://neurosciencenews.com/social-competitive-behavior-20202/
- Khadjavi, M. and Nicklisch, A. (2018) Parents’ Ambitions and Children’s Competitiveness. Journal of Economic Psychology, Vol. 67, 2018, p.87-102 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S016748701630280X?fr=RR-2&ref=pdf_download&rr=72408318ebf231ee
- Gordon, S. (2020) Pros and Cons of Competition Among Kids and Teens. VeryWell Family, September 17, 2020. https://www.verywellfamily.com/competition-among-kids-pros-and-cons-4177958#citation-3
- Bicalho, C., Melo, G., and Noce, F. (2020) Resilience of Athletes: A Systematic Review Based on a Citation Network Analysis. Cuadernos de Psicología del Deporte, vol. 20, no. 3, pp. 26-40, 2020. https://www.redalyc.org/journal/2270/227064713003/html/
- Understood (2022) Perspectives: Is it OK to Let Kids Fail? Understood, 2022. https://www.understood.org/en/articles/is-it-ok-to-let-kids-fail
- Pietrangelo, A. (2020) What the Yerkes-Dodson Law Says About Stress and Performance. Healthline, October 22, 2020. https://www.healthline.com/health/yerkes-dodson-law
- Neubert, J. (2018) How Competitions Help Students Understand and Manage Stress. Institute of Competitive Sciences, February 11, 2011. https://www.competitionsciences.org/2018/02/11/how-competitions-help-students-understand-and-manage-stress/
- Tominey, S. (2020) Teaching Children to Lose Gracefully So They Can Lose with Dignity as Adults. Synergies, Oregon State University, Nov. 9, 2020. https://synergies.oregonstate.edu/2020/creating-compassionate-kids/
- Mt. Sinai Parenting Center (2017) Winning and Losing Well. Mt. Sinai Parenting Center, March 30, 2017. https://parenting.mountsinai.org/blog/winning-and-losing-well/
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.