Kids Who Just Gotta Win

School-age kids are competitive by nature. Teach them how to have fun -- and be a good sport.

Kids and Competition

My 7-year-old son, Carl, is obsessed with winning. No matter what we do -- sports, board games, even getting dressed in the morning -- it's a competition. Nothing makes him happier than to shout "I win!"

Why do 6- to 8-year-olds turn everything into a contest? For one thing, they are developing new physical skills (such as shooting a basketball) and analytical abilities (such as learning to think ahead in checkers), so it's only natural to want to show them off. At the same time, they're starting to take an interest in what other people can do too. "Kids this age look around and compare who got more smiley faces on their homework, who scored more goals, and who won in Monopoly Junior," explains Marty Ewing, PhD, a sports psychologist at Michigan State University, in East Lansing. They know that winning brings rewards -- and losing doesn't.

Some competition isn't necessarily a bad thing. Seeing what others can achieve challenges kids to try harder. As they improve at a game or a sport, children also gain self-confidence. But a competitive streak can easily spin out of control: A child may start to do anything -- cheat, change the rules, or argue -- to avoid losing. And over time, a kid with a win-at-all-costs attitude may find he has fewer friends to hang out with. Even family members might avoid playing games with him in order to avoid the drama of it all.

Why Winning Becomes Everything

Your child's personality has a lot to do with how she approaches competition -- some kids thrive on it, while others shy away. But the biggest factor of all is your attitude.

Children observe how the adults in their lives respond to their victories and defeats, says Rae Pica, author of A Running Start: How Play, Physical Activity, and Free Time Create a Successful Child. If you get annoyed when your child misses a goal, or you constantly compare his performance to that of other children, your child may feel that he'll only get your approval by being better than everyone else. The result of this pressure: a kid who will try to win at all costs or who'll quit trying altogether.

Help your child understand that winning isn't everything by emphasizing the real goal -- simply doing your best. Instead of saying "Did you win?" or "What was your grade?" ask "Did you have fun?" or "What did you learn?" Praise the effort, not the result. And be specific in your comments, such as complimenting a strong kick or an amazing catch. "Just saying 'good job' is not enough," says Pica.

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