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Avoiding the Competitive Parenting Trap

Last month I read Karlyn Bishop’s piece on competitive children and here’s my favourite part of it: “practice losing”.  I even quoted it when I was tweeting the link later that day. Pure and simple wisdom. On the face of it at least.

Easier said than done though isn’t it? It’s really hard to allow a child to practice losing if you have trouble losing yourself. Whenever I’m working with a child client who has difficulty with competition, it often emerges that the parents find it hard too. And sometimes the competition issue arose for them before my little client was even born!

When did parenting become a competitive sport?

It’s crazy! We live in a competition-crazed world right now. We are surrounded by words like “super,” “best,” “tremendous” and I’m not just talking about world leaders here.

Does competition start at the womb?

I hear parents comparing how fast they got pregnant. The morning sickness, bump sizes, stomach upsets, the dizzy spells. I’ve heard women attaching meanings to normal pregnancy symptoms like – oh! that means the baby is very active, it’ll be great at sports. Or “Oh! that’s a bit late… MY baby embryo started reading at two weeks – I’m pretty sure I saw a diploma in its clever little fist at the second scan!”

Ok, I’m exaggerating but it does seem to me that some parents begin the rat race in the womb.

How moms turn their birthing process into a competition

There’s the ‘natural’ vs assisted fertility vs adoption competitions. Next we “graduate” to the labour competition – natural vs epidural. Breast feeding vs bottle. “When did yours wean?” or “not until THEN?” of course there’s also “HOW many hours sleep?!”


Sometimes the questions are accompanied by a slight shake of the head and that grimace – the passive aggressive mix of sympathy and judgement. You know which one I’m talking about. Surely you’ve seen or have done it yourself …

The babies who sit up, crawl, walk and talk first

After this stage there’s the sitting-up competition, the crawling, the walking, the talking, the socializing, the reading…

How often have you heard a parent brag that their child just loves garlic – no really! It was like a duck to water. And as for extra hot chilli? Well, they’d eat nothing but, given the chance. They’ve only been sick twice really, that’s probably why.

The extroverts vs the introverts


The sport, the extroversion, the introversion, the academic scores, the clothes size (he takes a 9 month bodysuit you know, and he’s only 6 months next week!!). The prowess at gaming, the prowess on the field, the clear skin, the strong body, the teeth that don’t ‘need’ work, the emotional well-being, the happiness… the list is as long as make it.

As you make it.

The competitive parenting trap

Competition is entering our lives earlier, and with more vigour. Winning is super important now. Being the ‘best’, not ‘losing’ or being a ‘loser’, not ‘failing’. Being popular has always been a competition, we know that. It still is, only more so. Now being popular is more important than ever, 24/7. As in, all day. We have Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, how many likes and followers and fans do you have?? JUST FOUR THOUSAND?? Oh dear, you’ll probably die alone…


Kids are now accumulating ‘friends’ and gathering fans because they believe that that means they are worthy. And we adults tend to do the same. We are all dopamine addicted guys – how may times do you check your social media for new ‘likes’??

So unwittingly, we are teaching our kids that popularity and winning, having the most, being the best, being the prettiest, the strongest are all very valuable. Not being the best is mediocre and undeserving of celebration, or worse, of love.

We are competing without even being aware that we’re doing it!

Do you over-compensate out of guilt?

On the other end of this scale, some of us are achingly aware that we are rewarding winners perhaps too much so we have begun to over-compensate. We give kids prizes regardless of their place in the running race or piano competition. We give every child a birthday gift in case they feel left out. We even give birthday party guests gifts now – when did that start??

Recently my mother in law informed me that there is a new ‘rule’ that the newborn baby arrives home with gifts for its older siblings in case they are upset by its presence. I was amazed by that one – maybe it’s not new? It was new for me though! Jeepers… What does that teach the siblings?

Competition is good and healthy

Yes it is. It keeps us on our toes, but how we handle it can go awry.  We’re now at a stage in our evolution where we are not allowing our kids to experience disappointment. Their pain and their rage are some of our fears.

As a consequence we invest a lot of energy into avoiding these (to be fair, unpleasant) emotions. So we often don’t take the opportunity to teach our kids to understand that other kids will be better than them at sports or even less skilled at music.

When is it actually right to reward your kids?

Sometimes we don’t give our kids the opportunity to help them understand that some kids need lots of friends and enjoy socializing, while others prefer their own company and find people draining. Not everyone is going to like us just as we are not going to like everyone. It’s not a reflection on our quality – it’s simply a matter of ‘fit’, of taste.

Some kids are taller, stronger, less interested in maths, more interested in science. It’s all OK.  We need to give our kids the chance to practice different ways of being, to ‘try on’ different ways of relating to people, activities and ideologies. And then see how they ‘fit’.

Then we can reward them for finding what works for them and their emotional well being. Not what works for us, what we feel is normal or good or cute and makes us look like well-adjusted healthy parents who have good parenting nailed.

Because, honestly, no-one has parenting nailed.

All we can do is our best

We can do our best to show kids how to be gracious in both winning and losing. How? By being good role models. We can show them we enjoy the buzz of achievement as both individuals and part of a team. By sharing credit, by giving credit. By criticising only in constructive ways. By not jeering at losing teams or mocking people who falter. By not raging at referees or ourselves if something doesn’t go our way.

This will teach them to understand that sometimes mistakes are made, that our best changes from day to day – even hour to hour. We can show kids compassion, empathy and understanding without offering them a gift and running to avoid every possible discomfort. If we succeed in doing this, then our kids will learn to feel loved and accepted whatever the outcome. They will learn resilience – the cornerstone of mental health.

In other words, if we disconnect winning and losing from our own self-worth, we will teach our kids to do the same just by living it!

Sally O'Reilly

Sally O'Reilly

Sally O’Reilly is an IAHIP, ICP and EAP accredited Counselling Psychologist, Psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor with nearly twenty years of professional experience. Her particular area of expertise and interest is work with teenagers. She enjoys a busy full-time private practice and has developed and facilitated a personal development, substance misuse and sexual health programme for teenagers for over 15 years. She is a regular contributor to national print and radio media.
Sally is also the co-author of Two Wise Chicks.
Feel free to follow Sally on: Facebook | Twitter | Linkedin


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  • There is so much truth in this post. When I was a new mom, I received unsolicited advice from other mom who made it seem that I was doing everything wrong. I believed most of them and it made me upset because I started comparing my child with theirs. It was not until my mom stepped in and said that each child is unique and has their own developmental milestones, and that my kids are okay and that there is nothing to worry about.

    • I was exactly the same! It did my head in to think my child wasn’t matching up to others. Now I know my son is different and I get many compliments for different things and so I know that no matter what, we all just need to appreciate them for everything that makes them unique.

    • Hi Jennifer and Karlyn, yes, well, the reason I jumped st the chance to write this one as because your experience is so common, which is terrible. I’m glad you found a resolution and had the good fortune to meet with a person who helped allay your concerns at such a vulnerable time. Warmly, Sally

    • “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Omg. I’m going to us that one! And yes, that’s right. It’s a sign of the times- we compare more than we ever used. There are so many ways for us to do it now, 24/7. And it can be exhausting and demoralising. Thanks for reading and for your wonderful sentence! Warmly, Sally

  • I never knew this was a thing until I got pregnant. I have a two year old and all I have seen in the past two years is overwhelming. The competition is real and there are some moms who will want to tell you what they think the best way to raise your child. None of us are perfect. I read my baby, not my baby book and make decisions on what I feel is best for my child.

  • I remember when I was a new mom and peopel would make comments to me about things the kids should (or shouldn’t) be doing at every age. They should be potty trained by now. They should have given up their bottle a long time ago. It really made me discouraged. That is, until I finally started to say, “I love you extra for thinking of us, but I’m not open to child rearing commentary” Of course, I said it sweetly and with a smile, but point taken. xx

  • Comparison of children upbringing can’t be ignored these days when people (parents) are becoming more active in social media. They post the pictures of their child and relatives and friends can’t help but to ask about the updates. This teaches us lessons anyway.

    • Hi Roch, yes it’s certainly become in more of an issue so we all need to mind ourselves around comparisons and privacy,not just parents! Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, warmly, Sally

  • Hey Sally,

    Is there any area of life that doesn’t somehow turn into a competition? I’m not a parent, but as a proud auntie, I do see it from the sidelines. Always competing and trying to be THE best is so exhausting, can’t we just appreciate one another no matter where we’re at?

    • Hi Nadalie, that’s the ideal isn’t it? I do dream of a world where we achieve that inner peace and silence the critical voices inside and outside our own heads! Maybe as we all become mow are of what we
      are doing to ourselves and each other we will learn to let ourselves be. Thanks so much for reading, Sally

  • I definitely feel the competitiveness as a parent. What’s worse are those that judge and that don’t have kids! It’s nice to surround myself with people who will listen and understanding!

  • I do see a lot of competitive parents out there especially when it came to potty training age or when the kids were able to solve basic math problems. That kind of thing is ridiculous to compete about but at the same time there are things I feel that parents are lacking in like making sure when their kids get older that they don’t turn into terrible human beings like bullies and trouble makers. Although on the other side you may argue that the pressure makes kids grow up to be bad people so as long as parents love and try, I think they are doing a good job.

  • This is such a great post! It’s so sad to see some parents fall into this trap! I think asking others for advice is great but when another mom ‘brags’ it can make it difficult on moms who are already struggling with their parenting.

    • Hi Amanda, yes. I don’t know if this would help people or not but I do believe that bragging is an outward expression of an inner need for approval. Keeping that in mind might make it easier to bear… (??!!) Thanks for reading and for commenting too, warm wishes, Sally

  • I completely agree that many parents are competitive about their kids. It’s fine to compare notes when you are a new parent to learn how other babies are learning/behaving, but bragging about a baby who sleeps through the night or had an easy birth is taking it too far. And of course children learn from their parents that it’s acceptable to act competitively with their peers.

    • Hi Lori, yes indeed. That is one of my big concerns too, what the children learn when they see their parents behave like this. It’s something that perhaps the “bragging ( maybe scared and insecure in truth) parent” hasn’t considered though, because their need in that moment supersedes all, including the future impact of their actions. But in the heat of the moment, it can be hard or impossible to be compassionate towards ones
      ‘s critic! Thanks for the reading and for your feedback, warmly, Sally

About Author

Sally O'Reilly

Sally O'Reilly

Sally O’Reilly is an IAHIP, ICP and EAP accredited Counselling Psychologist, Psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor with nearly twenty years of professional experience. Her particular area of expertise and interest is work with teenagers. She enjoys a busy full-time private practice and has developed and facilitated a personal development, substance misuse and sexual health programme for teenagers for over 15 years. She is a regular contributor to national print and radio media.
Sally is also the co-author of Two Wise Chicks.
Feel free to follow Sally on: Facebook | Twitter | Linkedin