Children: Coping with Competition & Learning the Art of Losing

parental guidance

A friend of a friend quipped the other day that she was preparing to launch her 11 year old as an IPO. What she meant was that she was about to embark on a roadshow to try to secure him a place at one South Africa’s top high schools. She was joking of course, but the first world problem of competing for spots at good schools is one that keeps parents up at night. It’s playground talk amongst moms in the 12 to 24 month age category at Clamber Club in Dunkeld. The fact is, demand exceeds supply, at present, and kids are competing for a limited number of places. Make no mistake, it’s a competitive world out there.

When I think about children and competition, I often think about the scene in the movie Parental Guidance (with Billy Crystal and Marisa Tomei) where the kids play non-competitive baseball – i.e. no-one can be struck out. Ever. So everyone remains equal and no-one wins or loses. It’s a spoof on a kind of new-age notion that competition is dangerous for a child’s self esteem.

Of course, I do understand that there are well-researched arguments for more collaborative, less competitive child-rearing approaches. I just don’t think that sheltering children almost entirely from competition prepares them for the current mainstream reality. I would argue that a more realistic approach for building confidence is to a) try to avoid creating competition where it need not exist and b) to teach children how to cope with losing – a skill even the most gifted must certainly need at times.

I sometimes catch myself doing the exact opposite of avoiding competition where it needn’t be present. I believe I do this in the interests of speed and efficiency – or perhaps because I’ve been hardwired that way since Sub A. For example, if I want to get the kids bathed quickly, I say “who wants to be washed first?” or if I want to get somewhere fast and they’re dawdling, my natural instinct is to make it a “race”. In contrast, my daughter’s neighbour and BFF, Kayla, regularly declares during complex kids’ suppers: “It’s not a race!” Indeed, the exercise of eating dinner should not be a competition (even though getting small kids to eat is often so laborious that I sometimes wish it were). I try to borrow Kayla’s maxim when situations that really needn’t be competitive, could turn into a contest.

Perhaps partly because I have vivid and mortifying memories of being a terrible loser as a child, I believe this is a critical coping mechanism that I want to equip my children with from a young age. No-one loves losing but I think some of us inherently mind it more than others. The other day I played “memory game” with my four year old daughter for the first time (jumbled up pairs of cards placed face down that you have to try to match, pair by pair, by recalling where they were lying when previously flipped over). I remember doing well at this game as a young child. Turns out that as an adult, I am rubbish. My daughter was cleaning up. She was on a winner’s high. I was deliberately competing as I would against an adult – i.e I was NOT letting her win. But then I got a bit lucky towards the end (when it’s much, much easier as they are far fewer cards left) and I began to collect quite a few pairs. Suddenly, my child looked set to lose and the prospect was devastating. She was completely unable to cope and proceeded to have a spectacular tantrum.

That was when I realised it was time I started gently teaching her how to have fun competing, but also, how to cope with losing.

As for her IPO roadshow, we opted out of the Grade 000 launch and I’m currently working on her marketing strategy for the Grade 0 race next year…