The chronic competitiveness of 5- and 6-year-olds is often hard for parents to handle. We tend to be embarrassed by the boasting common at this age and concerned that our children might be perceived as arrogant or insensitive. On the other hand, given our society today -- one in which kids often vie with each other to get into selective schools, onto teams, and into after-school activities -- parents may feel that discouraging competition will put their child at a disadvantage.
"We give our kids mixed messages," admits Ditte Nielsen, of Nassau, New York, mother of 6-year-old Ariela. "We want them to relax and have fun and not worry about being the best -- but we also want them to have what it takes to be successful." This ambivalence can make it difficult to assess whether your child's level of competitiveness is appropriate for her age.
"Competition isn't inherently good or bad," says Andrew Meyers, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Memphis. "But it can have positive and negative consequences." The task for parents, adds David Anderegg, Ph.D., a child psychologist in Lenox, Massachusetts, "is to help their kids compete in a healthy way."
The competitive spirit among 5- and 6-year-olds is directly related to their increasing sense of competence, which they gauge by comparing themselves with their peers. "I see my daughter's friends reaching developmental milestones -- tying their shoes, riding a bicycle without training wheels -- at different rates," Nielsen says. "They're very proud whenever they've mastered something new."
Whereas preschoolers have an active fantasy life, 5- and 6-year-olds are immersed in the real world of school. "When a 3-year-old wants to be the fastest kid in the world, he simply imagines that he is," explains psychologist Susan Engel, Ph.D., director of the Program in Teaching at Williams College, in Williamstown, Massachusetts. "A 5-year-old realizes it's not good enough just to think he's the fastest -- now he's got to prove it."
Many experts say it's best to avoid putting kids this age in situations that exacerbate their competitiveness. Although they like playing games with rules, they're not quite old enough to tolerate losing. "When there's a classroom birthday party, for example, kids are miserable if they're left without a seat during a game of musical chairs," says veteran teacher Vivian Gussin Paley, author of You Can't Say You Can't Play (Harvard University Press).
Even though many kids become involved in organized sports at this age, it's often the adults in charge who are focused on winning. "At the end of a soccer game, most 5- and 6-year-olds won't care if they've won or lost -- they're more interested in getting a snack," Dr. Meyers says. "Coaches and parents should emphasize learning, effort, and fun instead."
Of course, some kids are more competitive than others. To a certain extent, this is a matter of personality, but boys tend to be more competitive than girls. However, if your child can't enjoy a game unless he's winning or if he won't participate in activities for fear of losing, his behavior may be related to an issue at home.
"Younger siblings who feel they can never keep up may take their frustration out on their peers," Dr. Anderegg says. "Similarly, only children are often used to being king of the hill at home and may try to re-create that role with friends." Some kids also feel the need to excel in order to win love and attention from their parents.
Kids who haven't lost a tooth yet, can't do a cartwheel, or are the shortest in their class are often anxious about not keeping up with their peers. However, if your child voices his insecurity, avoid offering a reassuring list of his talents ("You're smart," "You're fast," "You're a wonderful artist"). "Children won't believe they're good at things just because we tell them that they are," Dr. Engel says. Also, don't try to comfort your child at the expense of others ("Josh is a fast runner, but you're a better swimmer"). Instead, talk about how people have different strengths and develop at different rates, and reassure him that you'll love him regardless of whether he wins.
It's perfectly normal for your child to make casual comparisons between herself and her friends, so there's no need to chastise her for those sorts of comments, but you don't want to encourage them either. Help her become more aware of how bragging can hurt other kids' feelings. It's also important to be a good role model. Listen to yourself when you talk about your accomplishments, and pay attention to whether you tend to compare yourself with others, even if unfavorably. Ideally, your child will learn to focus on her own achievements rather than on outshining someone else.