Some people might consider competition a dirty word, especially when it comes to kids. But it’s totally natural assures writer and sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman. “It’s a part of aging and maturity and understanding yourself relative to others.”
Levey Friedman, who wrote the book on kids and competition —“Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture” — says that once children reach age six, they start to be able to discern who’s the fastest in gym class, or who’s the best at math. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“Today, there are so many different areas in which kids can be competitive,” she says. “Rather than it feeling like everything is competitive, I think the [best] perspective is, ‘There are so many opportunities for my child to find what they’re best at.’ And that actually can give them more self-esteem.”
OK, so a little competitive spirit helps challenge your little ones. But how do we coach children to lose without throwing tantrums, or win without rubbing it in? We chatted with Levey Friedman on the best ways to teach your child sportsmanship. Spoiler alert: It’s not as hard as you think.
Expose Your Children Early
Don’t be scared to get your little one on the field. “Most children are ready to compete in an organized way [by] first grade,” says Levey Friedman. That’s because many sports and activities are skill based, and children need to have the requisite motor skills to play and compete. (But don’t worry — you can still enroll your one-year-old in music class, and some kids can start playing soccer as soon as they can run.)
There’s a major benefit to exposing your kids to sports when they’re younger too: With so many years of practice, they’ll learn to take losses less personally as they grow older. Say, at the big homecoming game, where recruiters have their eye on the team. “When kids are in high school, the stakes matter more: suddenly college coaches are looking, or scouts,” she says. “[But] when you’re eight-years-old and you miss the corner kick in a tournament, it really doesn’t matter that much.”
As far as finding something your child will be interested in, look no further than yourself. “Kids take cues from their parents’ interests,” Levey Friedman notes. “So if a parent plays a game, or watches a sport regularly on TV, a child will likely be drawn to that.” She suggests exposing children to a variety of activities, and sticking to what they seem to enjoy.
Encourage Handshakes and High Fives
The best way to encourage good sportsmanship in children is to walk the walk, and talk the talk.
“Parents can model good behavior by praising other children’s performance — ‘She played great defense!’ — or sportsmanship — ‘I liked that the boy on the other team helped John up when he fell down,’” Levey Friedman says. After all, whether you realize it or not, your children are always watching. “Many kids who aren't good losers learn that behavior from their parents,” she says.
It’s also crucial to foster good sportsmanship in children on the field — even if they are having a major meltdown after the game. “When kids are having a meltdown over a loss, a parent must remove them from the situation,” Levey Friedman suggests. Wait for the child to calm down, and then discuss what happened, highlighting their successes, no matter how small: I like that you didn’t give up, or You did a great job supporting your teammates on the sidelines.
Once things calm down, provide your kid with some choice examples. “It can be useful to talk about a specific athlete in their sport who has had major failures or setbacks, but also success,” she says. “This way, kids know that failure is a natural part of the process.”
Have a kid on the other side of the coin, prone to gloating after a sweet victory? Encourage empathy. Ask them, What it might feel like to be in the loser’s shoes? After all, for a child who is innately competitive, it’s all about perspective. “It’s not just about the winning, it’s about getting better,” Levey Friedman says. “And [empathizing] is a good way to put that into context."
Find their Strengths
Because young ones are inherently social, Levey Friedman suggests that some kids are better off finding sports that combine individual and group competition.
“Most people think it’s important to have a mix of the individual and team, and it’s possible to make that happen,” she says. “Sports like swimming and tennis, for example, help develop various skills simultaneously, especially at older ages [where] peer relationships matter so much.”
Another balance friendly method? Something Levey Friedman has delightfully coined the buffet approach. “You lay out many different options for your kids and encourage them to try many different things,” she says. “And in one area they’re gonna be great, one area they’re just good and in one area they’re terrible.” That way, there’s no way for your kid to think they’re the best at everything — or the worst.
The buffet approach can also teach your kids how to be less of a sore loser, by allowing them some agency in the process. "Forcing your child to do something where you know they’re not going to be the best can sort of force them to learn how to be a better loser.”
Don’t Be So Protective
Helicopter moms, beware: Keeping your kids from competition is doing more harm than good. “Don’t shield your kids from a competitive environment just because you’re worried about the competition itself,” Levey Friedman says. After all, your child can’t know what it feels like to be a winner until they’ve experienced loss — and vice versa.
“It’s actually a really important life skill to be able to know what it feels like to lose, and then to come back and try again,” she says. “And we can think about so many situations where that would be applicable [later] in life.”
She also suggests that parents not get too, ahem, involved. “So many parents, especially with sports, get wrapped up in this idea that there’s going to be a college scholarship waiting at the end of this competitive rainbow,” she says. “And if you look at the numbers, it's just not realistic.” Which brings us to our next point…
Let Your Kids Have Fun
It’s easy to get caught up — especially when your wallet is involved. But Levey Friedman says that a lot of the benefits of competition are social ones. “When I was first studying Scholastic Chess, I interviewed a girl who was in third grade at the time. And the first thing I asked was, 'What’s your favorite thing about chess?’ And her answer blew my mind. What she said was, ‘I like playing in chess tournaments because I like meeting kids that go to other schools.’”
Turns out, a lot of times, kids are after the friend-making aspect of after school activities. “Kids sort of naturally are social in ways that sometimes adults aren’t,” she says. “It’s about developing life skills.”
Now, watch below for planning tips that will score big on family game night: