As a kids' soccer coach, Lee Hancock knows plenty about keeping rivalries in check. Still, he finds himself playing referee to his twins, Owen and Gavin. "Starting in preschool, there were fights over who was winning at 'Go fish' and video games," says Dr. Hancock, who has a Ph.D. and is the coauthor of Potentialing Your Child in Soccer. "I have two type A boys who naturally want to win at everything."
Why are some kids so focused on finishing first? Clue in to how kids this age see competition.
Competitiveness is natural among preschoolers, says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., Parents advisor and coauthor of Smart Parenting for Smart Kids. Although you'll want to address the issue, don't be too concerned if your child sees an opportunity to best her buddies in everything from who can swing higher to who can get to the front of the line first. "Kids this age are starting to figure out the concept of winning," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "At age 4, they'll compete over anything: Mine's bigger, better, bluer. They're not always sure about the complexities of winning and losing, but they do understand that winning is good, so they want to win at everything."
However, your kid's must-win ways may not be endearing to her pals. Preschoolers don't always make the connection between their behavior and others' reactions, so your child may be confused when a peer stops playing with her. "You can say, 'When you cut in front of Grace in line, how do you think that made her feel? How would it make you feel?'" says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "Then talk about what she could do differently next time, such as taking turns or letting her friend go first."
Playdates will also be easier if your child learns to think of winning in terms of effort, not outcome. Begin by practicing good "playmanship" between siblings at home. "In our house, we talk about how great it is that Owen remembered where the matching cards were in 'Go fish' or praise Gavin for being such a good teammate," says Dr. Hancock. "We praise them for how they play rather than for the end result."
Still, it's hard to temper an overly competitive child's desire to win (especially against a brother or a sister). "Sibling rivalries are crucial to a child's development -- these interactions are microcosms of how he'll respond to similar competition in the outside world," says Hilary Levey Friedman, Ph.D., a sociologist at Harvard and author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. "A preschooler will challenge his older brother or sister relentlessly even though it's not a fair match, because it lets him explore what it's like to compete in a safer environment than on the playground with peers."
That's a familiar scenario for Damon Dorrien, father of Kadyn, 4, and Mason, 6, in Smithtown, New York. "We have a backyard playset, with swings, a rock wall, and a slide," says Dorrien. "Being older, Mason can do a lot of things on it that Kadyn can't, but Kadyn is determined to come up with new tricks to show us." Rather than compare their sons, Dorrien and his wife praise each boy's efforts and focus on the fun factor: "Whenever Kadyn asks if he is 'winning' at ice hockey, I tell him that we are all winning as long as we're having fun," Dorrien says.
Competitiveness itself is not a negative trait, but learning how to win or lose gracefully takes practice. "For preschoolers, playing progressively more complex games helps them experience competition in a positive way," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. Start with "Can you beat your own record?" games that involve your child competing against herself. "Preschoolers love stopwatches because they're also just learning about the concept of time," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. You can suggest one or two challenges: How fast can she run to that tree and back? Can she recite the alphabet faster today than she did yesterday? Teach her that winning is about being her best possible self and that there's always room for improvement. Next, teach your child some cooperative-style games -- activities where the family works together to achieve a goal, like everyone using the same piece to play Candy Land. "That way, no one person wins or loses -- you turn it into a group effort to get to the finish together," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore.
Not surprisingly, some kids are simply more bent on winning than others: We live in a competitive world. The older kids get, the more they will experience winning -- and losing. "The ability to bounce back after a loss becomes increasingly important as your child reaches the elementary-school years," says Dr. Levey Friedman. "Teaching resilience now sets kids up for success because they learn that failure isn't the end of the world. It's just a chance to try again."
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Parents magazine.