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!