A familiar generational joke is one about a child coming home from school with a score of 98 on a test and the parent asks, “What happened to the other two points?” Grown children often use this as a description of critical parents who are impossible to please no matter how good you are. The same attitude sometimes applies to sports specifically the attitudes of parents and others about the importance of winning.
This focuses attention on competition, which seems to be part of everything related to children these days. The pressure is on for children to win – win a spot in a good school, win a top spot in class, and win approval for everything they do. An article on the subject of kids playing to win quotes the football legend Vince Lombardi saying, “Winning isn’t everything, but it’s the only thing. In our business there is no second place.” Unhappily, this seems to apply in too many areas these days.
Not long ago, in reporting about parental opposition to the new testing required in schools, notice was taken of disagreement among parents about the degree to which children are under pressure. In this regard there were strong feelings pro and con about the value of trophies and awards being given not for winning or ranking but just for playing – showing up, as it were. Some parents were interested in downplaying the element of competition by not focusing on winners and losers. Others felt that competition is part of the real world that children need to learn to live in.
Just as there are parents who are competitive and are invested in their children winning, other parents are concerned when their children seem too invested in winning and become upset when they lose. Of course, children do respond to parental attitudes, but there are also developmental issues involved.
Very young children have no understanding of, or interest in, rules. When playing their first board games they just like moving their pieces around the board, or getting to a particular spot that looks interesting or attractive to them. Trying to explain the rules, or trying to get a youngster to follow them in his play will only lead to frustration – his and yours. There is unlikely to be a good outcome using a board game as an activity for a play date.
When young children seem very invested in winning, becoming upset when they don’t win, it is often because of the value given winning by adults around them. Getting to the goal or finish line first, means you’re good, or you get the prize, or when playing with a parent that you are grown up, too. It may reflect rivalry with a sibling and becoming the one more approved of by parents. It gives children pleasure to be first and best. Losing may feel like failure, which is when children become upset and they do whatever they have to do in the game to avoid such feelings – breaking the “rules,” which parents or others call cheating, adding even greater stigma to losing.
Then, when children do become understanding of rules, around age 7, the rules become more important than the game. In play with their peers more time is spent discussing or arguing about the rules and attacking or defending a supposed breach of the rules than is spent actually playing. What this struggle over rules is about is children’s own internal struggle about following rules generally, not just in games. It is a period when they are gaining control over their own impulses and the need to follow rules that are set by parents and others rather than giving in to their own wishes.
When it comes to winning at sports, or winning praise as the smartest kid in the class, not only developmental factors but also differences in children’s abilities play a big role. There are children with special talents or with particular ability in one subject over another. Here is where parents can play an important role in helping children understand that no one is the best at everything and that everyone has something that is hard for them. Parents can help children focus on doing the best that they are capable of in whatever they are doing rather than on how they compare to someone else. When there is an element of choice, children can be redirected toward activities in which they do well and enjoy, rather than competing in areas where they will feel like losers.
Team activities such as sports can be useful when used to teach children about team work. The ability to work on behalf of team success rather than personal stardom is an important skill that will apply in many ways to children’s lives. Children can also be helped to focus on their own personal improvement instead of how they compare to someone else.
Winning is not everything, nor is it the only thing. That may not be the message that children are given in the world around them but it is one parents can give when they value their children for who they are.