Pee-Wee football, Mini Gymnastics and flash cards for babies are now part of our world. We watch “Dancing with the Stars” and “Survivor” to see who “wins” or who “gets kicked off the island.” Competition is part of our culture. But is it a good thing for young children?
Experts tell us that how a child handles competition depends on temperament, age and stage of development. In order to positively handle competition, a child needs a well-established self-esteem. On average, this would happen around age ten. However, our culture encourages children to start competing long before that!
Three- and four-year-olds already talk about who is the fastest, who will be first in line and who has the most toys. Handling actual competition is much more stressful and emotional. Tears and anger may accompany losing. The game pieces from Candyland might go flying when a young child doesn’t win.
Teaching Your Children to be Good Sports
Now is the time for parents to teach about winning and losing, rather than punishing the child for being a poor loser.
- Try to let your child win most of the time, until you begin to see the maturity necessary for graceful losing.
- Talk about having fun, rather than worrying about winning or losing.
- Change the rules for a while, if necessary. One family realized that their four-year-old was stacking the deck in the Candyland game by putting all the picture cards on top. She just couldn’t handle getting almost to the finish line and then drawing that darn gumdrop card! They changed the rules to say, “If you get a picture card and you’ve already passed it, you can draw again.” Then they could focus on other skills learned in the game, such as taking turns and following directions.
- Be a role model by saying, “Good game!”, shaking hands, high-fiving or complimenting your child when he or she wins the game. You can also model being a good winner.
- Find games and activities where everyone can win.
- If your child does have a fit after losing, calmly say, “Losing is hard. We’ll put the game away and next time you can have another chance to be a graceful winner.”
It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose; It’s How You Play the Game
By age five or six, most children can play a game and handle losing fairly well. But what about sports for kids? Many children are involved in organized sports, such as soccer or T-ball by age three. Some are taking dance, skating or gymnastics lessons.
Are you trying to turn your child into the next Joe Mauer or Gabby Douglas? Are you trying to increase your own self-esteem through your child? Parents should first examine their own motives. At a kindergarten girls’ softball game, one little girl was unusually athletic for her age and could actually hit the ball consistently. Because the little girls on the opposing team weren’t skilled at fielding the ball yet, most of these hits resulted in a home run. After this batter stepped on home plate, she would run over to the stands and her dad would hand her $5. Think carefully about what you want your child to learn from sports and competition.
Tips for Involving Kids in Athletics:
- Choose a program that emphasizes learning over winning. This usually means no score is kept.
- Be sure the adults involved understand the developmental stage of the kids and act accordingly.
- Adults should be positive when interacting with the children.
- Sportsmanship should be emphasized.
- There should be equal participation for all children. This is not the time for star pitchers or prima ballerinas.
- One mom told us it’s possible that her son is a great basketball player, but no one will ever know because he was never given a chance to play and eventually dropped out of the sport.
- The activity or sport should not compromise developing bones and muscles by expecting more than a young child’s body is ready for.
We all like to have something at which we are really good. Parents can give their child a great start in the world of competition by focusing on the child’s individual strengths rather than comparing them to others. Encourage your child to focus on learning and improvement by setting reasonable personal goals and challenges instead of worrying about what others are doing. You may not be producing the next Olympic gold medalist, but you will end up with a child who is happy, emotionally healthy and ready to take on our competitive world.