It was only a matter of time. We'd been in lockdown for six weeks, boredom levels were at an all-time high, and we had hand drawn rainbows coming out of our ears. Nobody looked all that excited when I appeared with a slightly dusty Monopoly in my hands, but it was time to remind my kids that once upon a time, gaming didn't involve a screen.
It turns out, Fortnite isn't the only game my kids argue over.
I come from a competitive family. Our virtual lockdown quizzes have hard questions and the winners wear crowns. But genes aside, my kids take competitiveness to another level.
"Some kids are naturally more competitive than others," says licensed professional counselor Roseann Capanna-Hodge, EdD. "Their disposition is simply to go after what they want. Typically, these are more goal-oriented children with a strong desire to achieve, as well as a natural aptitude in whatever area they push themselves to compete in."
But certain factors play into the behavior of school-aged kids to make them want to win at everything. "They're just learning to find themselves and are becoming aware of what others think of them," Capanna-Hodge says. "Winning games and sports and getting those top grades is a way to get loads of attention. Who doesn't want to bask in glory?"
Insecurity can also be a factor here — when kids have a genuine fear of losing, this can drive them to be more competitive. "These more insecure children tend to want to 'win everything' and when they don't, a tantrum usually follows," Capanna-Hodge says.
Of course, that doesn't mean families can't embrace or promote a competitive spirit — whether it applies to grades or sports or lockdown Monopoly. But there's a continuum from a healthy approach to an unhealthy one, Capanna-Hodge warns. "At one end is a family who pushes their child to win and be the best and tells them, 'second place is only the first loser,'" she says.
If a child is pushed to be too competitive, unsportsmanlike, and care about winning above all else, their emotional wellbeing is put at risk. "Children who are always in competition mode have to turn down their empathy and aren't as likely to connect on a more emotional level," Capanna-Hodge explains. "And when children are overly competitive, unless they win, they feel less-than, and this can really rock a developing child's emotional core." The knock-on effect is that their self-esteem and confidence remains low.
At the other end of the competition continuum are families who encourage competition in a more balanced way, that teaches children to work hard to achieve goals, but also that winning isn't everything.
"When we teach or encourage kids to be competitive, we show that with hard work and practice, they can accomplish specific things," Capanna-Hodge says. "Through healthy competition, they learn to hone their efforts and develop a mindset that when they apply themselves, they can grow in that area. Encouraging a child's competitive spirit can bolster their skills — and most importantly, their self-esteem — when done in a balanced manner that emphasizes a strong work ethic, sportsmanship, positive mindset, and adaptability."
But back to lockdown losers. How can parents deal with kids who get angry or upset when they don't win all the time? Sore loser is never a good look.
"Children can learn to manage their disappointment and big emotions with practice, patience, and parent role modeling," Capanna-Hodge says. She suggests that parents make a point of showing how they handle losing well, while still having fun. And before any competitive activity or game, make sure everyone taking part knows what the rules, goals, and expected behaviors are. This helps a child shift from an "I'm only good if I win" attitude to "I'm having fun/spending time with family/learning something" attitude.
Kids can still celebrate a win, but we can help them celebrate and enjoy all the small steps it took to get there, and encourage a more positive outlook and empathetic view of others. "This will serve them throughout life as they manage stress," Capanna-Hodge says.
Not all kids want to win, of course — and while there's nothing wrong with a neutral, non-competitive child who genuinely doesn't care whether they win or lose, it can be concerning if it seems to come from a place of anxiety.
"Some children's anxiety causes them to be afraid of anything new — including competition — and they avoid a lot of things in life," Capanna-Hodge says. "Parents shouldn't push an avoidant child, but they should try to open up conversation about the issue, while being careful to emphasize the feelings and not the behaviors."
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