Did you ever win a race or a spelling bee? Do you remember how you felt?
Research has shown that these “winning” moments may have a lasting effect: In a study of over 1,200 successful women, psychologist Sylvia Rimm of the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine found that they most frequently recalled winning in competition as a positive childhood experience.
Under certain conditions, succeeding in a competitive environment is linked to general success and happiness. Oscar winners, for instance, live an average of four years longer than nominees. Kids who were popular in high school (thus succeeding in a competitive social environment) earn an average of 10% more than unpopular kids.
Yet, for some children, competition can actually reduce the motivation to succeed. As research from the Davidson Institute for Talent Development points out, competition “is good for some, but it may result in a few winners and many losers.” Some students, especially those who are less motivated or who have a history of underachieving, “often have difficulty dealing with defeat.”
In other words, while competition can encourage certain kinds of kids, it can discourage others. And that doesn’t even account for the burnout and stress that often accompany the fight to be number one.
In this Tiger Mom age of highly competitive school admissions—and not just for college, either—parents are pushing their kids to new heights. This begs a few questions: Are you really doing your child a favor by going to great lengths to make sure he ends up in the top slot? If she’s supremely stressed out over track tournaments and AP tests … is that kind of self-motivation good or bad?
As the mantra goes, all things in moderation. Your job is to help your child succeed—but not at the expense of mental health. Here’s how to know if your kid is becoming too competitive:
1. She’s Becoming a Braggart
Your kid needs to remember that she has many positive qualities aside from her in-the-moment winnings. Plus, on a more tangible level, you don’t want her to become ostracized by peers who resent the bragging.
What to do about it: Try to reinforce the attributes she should be proud of that go beyond the specific record that she broke or test she aced. When you give her a compliment, focus not on the “win,” per se, but on the admirable qualities that helped her get there, such as hard work, motivation and the fact that she didn’t give up even though she used to find this task difficult.
2. He Gets Negative About Himself
Noam Schpancer, a professor of psychology at Otterbein University who studies child care and development, says that it’s possible to feel like a champion even when you’re statistically average. “Recent research in positive psychology shows that the sense of control and social connectedness afforded by high achievement can also be obtained by other means,” he says. Even if your child doesn’t consistently come in first, avoid letting him feel like he’s at the whim of something beyond his power.
What to do about it: If your child gets frustrated by losing, praise his effort and highlight the good things that he does. He might have struck out at bat, but you can point out how well he fielded the ball. If he’s getting demoralized at a certain competitive activity, you can also consider switching his focus from competition to skill-building and teamwork by choosing activities like drama, art or music.