I don’t believe competitiveness is an inherited trait. It is taught behavior. You can look around on Google and you’ll see that scientists have not been able to link competitiveness to genes, which leaves it up to you to make sure your children learn to be competitive. It’s also no secret that highly competitive children grow up to be highly competitive adults. This is one of the things we believe is important to build in small children. So what is it exactly that all of us can do as parents to not only encourage children to be competitive but to teach them how to be a good sport?
Here’s what we do…
Every single day, there is a moment or ten where either Kristina or I get an idea for a contest. Oftentimes, they’re very simple. I might give all of the kids a starting point and tell them that from there, they are to run to the end of the dock, jump off as far as they can into the water, and swim back to the boat ramp. Whichever kid gives me the best warm and fuzzy feeling gets a treat. Other times, I’ll come up with some crazy thing I want the kids to do and let them know that whoever gets it done wins a giant glass of chocolate milk. Yes, we don’t just give out treats for free. Our kids NEVER get a glass of chocolate milk just because. They are to be earned by either making me super happy about something or by winning. Other times, it’s a “whoever crosses the finish line first wins” kind of competition although those are hard for the 4 year olds. They always get owned but I think that’s an important lesson to learn. You can’t always win. Sometimes, there’s just someone better, bigger, or faster than you.
Let Them Lose
When you dangle a carrot in front of a kids face and then beat them in the competition you created so that you can have it, it burns them. They also hate getting spanked by other kids and watching someone else get the treat. They think about these loses and will often times comment about them days later saying, “Mom, next time we do that race, I’m going to win.” I’ve seen my kids cry while they sit on the grass feeling sorry for themselves because they have to watch siblings eat an ice cream cone because they half-asses a competition or even worst, opted out. And as much as it sucks to be a parent watching one child left out, it’s also teaching them to value winning, competition, and rewards that come from success.
Show Them Their Strengths
Everyone has their strengths and in my opinion, the hell with working to improve your weaknesses. Focus on your strengths and we’ll all be more happy and more successful in our short lives. We try to teach all of the kids what they are good at and we never lie to them about what they suck at. I’ll tell my kids they suck at something if they suck at it. I also make sure to tell them how awesome they are at other things. I’m all about keeping it real and I truly believe they are better off for it. For example, Darius is strong as an ox but has the worst agility. He’s just not agile. I’m never going to encourage that he walk tight ropes for a living. On the strength side of things, he’s unbelievably strong. When he was 3 and weighted 38 pounds, he once carried a 5 gallon tank of gas up a trail going uphill to the site where we were building our cabin. That’s 40 pounds of gas. He blew me away and I didn’t think he’d be able to do it. Still, to this day, I make sure I brag about this feat to others in front of him. He’s so proud of his strength! On the flip side, he knows he sinks like a rock and isn’t just going to jump out in the water without a life vest on. Is it wrong to let a 4 year old know they are a sinker and to give them a little more fear about water? You try living on a boat with a fearless 4 year old and you’d see that cluing him in to his sink-like-a-lead-weight power has probably saved his life.
“Practice Makes Perfect”
This is a saying I heard constantly as a child and it’s very true. We teach all of the children this cardinal rule until they can repeat it at a young age. A child might suck at something and may never have the inborn ability to be an Olympic medalist in swimming but they can still sure as hell get better at swimming with lots of practice. For a child to see first hand that they can improve their skills and be more competitive is a MASSIVE lesson in their young lives.
Teach Them Success
A large part of being an actual competitor is being taught or learning certain skills that improve your chances of winning. All of the kids are keeping running tallies of who’s caught how many big fish and which fish were the biggest. I’ve taught them all what I know about fishing so they all have a chance to be competitive in the first place.
Sportsmanship is easy. We teach all of the kids that they don’t have to like losing but they do need to give the winner props for beating them. There’s a saying, “There’s always someone better.” Although it is possible that you could be the best person in the world at something, it’s extremely unlikely. Does that mean you are worthless? Does that mean you can’t be extremely competitive in your circles? Nope.
Our approach to competition with our bus load of kids as been highly successful. Every single one of them has a competitive streak that makes me proud. They literally start their own competitions without any prompting from us and we constantly hear conversations between them that include comments like, “We’ll see about that,” “Talk is cheap,” “I don’t think so,” “Prove it,” and “I bet you can’t.” It looks like they are all on track to kick some serious butt in the competitive world of grown ups.