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Kids Who Just Gotta Win

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.

Despite your best efforts, your child may still become hypercompetitive. If that's the case, here's how to tone down his attitude.

Play by the rules. When you're competing against your child in a game of Boggle or a swimming race, use the opportunity to teach him how to win -- and lose -- graciously. While it's tempting to throw the game, doing so will cause him to devalue his victories. Don't let him bend the rules, either, though there's nothing wrong with adapting a game to help your child develop his skills. If you're playing Ping-Pong, you might give your child an extra serve when he first starts playing. As long as you agree on any rule changes at the beginning, it's fair play.

Help her set goals. Encourage your child to compete against herself, not others. Ask how many dribbles she can do in 60 seconds or how many tennis shots she can hit in a row. This will give her the satisfaction of seeing real progress and might curb her intensity when she plays against others.

Switch activities. If your child takes winning too seriously, look for activities that emphasize skill-building over scorekeeping, such as martial arts, bicycling, and dancing.

Don't tolerate poor sportsmanship. Teach your child to control his emotions whether he loses or wins, and be ready with consequences when he doesn't. Gena Zehner, of Baltimore, puts her 7-year-old son, Dakota, in the "penalty box" when he throws a fit about losing a board game. "He's slowly learned that it's okay to lose sometimes," says Zehner. A winner who gloats is just as bad. Some sports leagues require a postgame lineup where opposing teammates high-five each other. Institute the same no-gloating policy at home: A heartfelt "good game" should be the ritual ending to any competition. The point is to make good sportsmanship part of the rules for every game.

Here's how to help your child be gracious in defeat.

Scenario: Your child loses at Blokus for the third time in a row and storms out of the room.

What to do: Once you've given her a few minutes to calm down, acknowledge her frustration. Then point out how much she has improved since she started playing.

Scenario: Your child strikes out twice in a Little League game and feels like a flop.

What to do: Ask him whether he'd like to go to the park and practice his hitting with you before his next game. Remind him that even Hall of Famers strike out a lot of the time.

Scenario: Your child tries very hard in soccer but never scores a goal.

What to do: Congratulate her effort, and draw her attention to positive things she did on the field (such as making a good pass).

There Are No Losers

Tone down your child's competitive streak by encouraging activities that promote cooperation, sharing, and teamwork.

Art projects. Get out paints (or clay) and have everyone make a mural or a sculpture together.

Dance party. Make a mix of kid faves, then have your child and her friends take turns showing off their moves.

Science lab. Take a bunch of kids for a nature walk, or set up a kitchen-science experiment.

Drama. Fill a box with old costumes and props, and have the group put on an improvisational show.