Is your son hyper-competitive?

Competitive Boys Some kids are REALLY competitive. Does your son need to be first in line? Does he have trouble sharing? Is he unwilling to pass the puck or the ball? When kids begin attending school, they're not only learning reading, writing, and arithmetic, they're learning how to interact with their peers and how to problem-solve in a social setting. Some children feel the need to dominate in situations where access to preferred toys or activities is limited - the classroom is a balancing act, where kids learn to balance their own needs (and wants) against those of others. Both boys and girls can become competitive in these situations, but boys tend to be the ones who take competition to "the next level".

Kids learn about cooperation from a very young age. Many of the games played by toddlers require them to act in complementary roles - hide-and-seek, duck-duck-goose, and tag require someone to be "it", and children learn to take turns in the roles (even when there's a preference for one position over another) in order to keep the game going. When kids start school, games and social demands become more complex, and empathy and perspective-taking are required to maintain relationships. Some kids are more proficient in social interactions than others; friendly, co-operative children tend to be more popular than those who have trouble controlling their emotions when problems arise. But kids develop at different rates, so in preschool and kindergarten classes (even in Grade 1), there are often some students who NEED to be #1, and often these are the boys.

So a certain amount of competition is normal, particularly for young kids who haven't learned cooperative strategies yet. But some children, usually boys, become hyper-competitive, and fixate on getting what they want, sometimes to the detriment of their friendships. They may shove their classmates to get to the front of the line, or take over the swing in the playground. How can parents tell when normal competition crosses into hyper-competitive territory? I'd say that when kids compete about EVERYTHING and have trouble changing their competitive behaviour, or if severe emotional overreactions occur when cooperation or sharing is required, your child might need some help. More likely than not, they're going through a phase, but if they can learn some other strategies for handling social situations, they may avoid getting into trouble with teachers or be able to form more lasting friendships.

Here are a few things that could be important for the parents of hyper-competitive boys to remember:

  1. Competition is good, sometimes: We all want our kids to get along with their peers, but no one wants them to be a doormat. Assertiveness is OK, and so is winning a game. Kids need to learn how to politely assert their needs, and researchers have found that using humour can be helpful too. Participating in activities that require cooperation with others can be good practice, especially if there are opportunities for the kids to change roles. Putting on a play or playing games games with both cooperative and competitive elements (like charades) might help.
  2. Winning isn't everything: Some hyper-competitive kids need reminders that there's more to games than scoring goals. I sometimes suggest that parents and their kids make up a list of other things that are important in their sport of choice - assists, passes, or cheering for your team-mates, for example. When kids compete to engage in positive team behaviours, they're on the way to becoming more cooperative!
  3. Consistency is key: When a child is learning a new skill, it's extremely helpful when everyone's on the same page. When both parents and teachers compliment sharing or allowing others to go first, children are more likely to do it more often. Some kids might need to learn some strategies to calm themselves down when others are taking their turns though!
  4. Watch out for worries: Some anxious kids cope with stress by attempting to control their environment. Occasionally, this can manifest as  overly competitive behaviour, especially for young kids who may not have the language skills to explain their feelings. Looking for signs of worry, such as sleep problems, appetite changes, or physical symptoms, might allow parents to determine whether hyper-competition is actually a coping strategy. Learning to relax and to manage worries may reduce competitiveness.

Of course, these simple suggestions won't necessarily be helpful in every case. If behaviours continue or begin to cause significant problems with peer relationships, it may be time to look for outside help from a therapist or a family doctor.

Much of the research information in this post was derived from a 2006 literature review by Vanessa Green and Ruth Rechis, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. We also talked about competitive kids on the Family Anatomy podcast.

Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only, and are not intended to replace professional or medical advice. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.