Why is my child obsessed with winning?

Everything’s suddenly competitive. |  Lance Grandahl  on  Unsplash

Everything’s suddenly competitive. | Lance Grandahl on Unsplash

The four-year-old had to be first.

At breakfast, he had to be first to finish his cereal. At bedtime, he had to be first up the stairs. He had to be first in the garage, first out of the car, first to open the door, first into the elevator.

He did not want to be the first to sleep, but he had to be the first one awake.

The sudden competitive streak wasn’t all that surprising, but the emotional response to losing these contests was. Tantrums if Mom finished her drink first, if Dad got to the light switch first, and if the U.S. marble lost in the marble race world Grand Prix.

Out of concern for both his emotional stability and his creeping nativism, I started reading up on childhood competitiveness. A quick Google search identified the root cause: only children are competitive because they are used to getting their own way. But then again, youngest siblings tend to be competitive out of concern for last being least. But then again again, oldest siblings can feel displaced when so much attention is lavished on younger, needier, siblings, encouraging sibling rivalry that leads to competition.

The explanations got muddier from there. A competitive child must be a sign that parents are putting too much pressure on their success. Or a competitive child is being neglected at home and competes at school for reassurance. Or a child has certainly experienced a trauma with long-reaching consequences. Or a child should be evaluated for autism. Or a child just isn’t sleeping enough and is grumpy and acting out.

When there are so many “obvious” causes of a problem, I question whether that problem is actually a problem.

Kids’ winning obsessions can be explained by a confluence of events. Young kids are egocentric, the center of their universes. But they’re also attending school for the first time, which means being constantly confronted with evidence that they are not the center of the universe. They have more opportunities to compare and find themselves wanting. The schools themselves are increasingly standards-focused, which may further stimulate kids to “win” at school.

Confident that we didn’t have a problem so much as a 24/7 in-home game show network, I started searching for losing strategies. I’ve found three ways to help my son cultivate a losing attitude.

Teach about types of competitions

Joanna Faber and Julie King’s How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen, which has recently humbled me about my response to tantrums, is also helping me think through this competitive streak. When parents write something down, kids see that their concerns are being taken seriously. Writing also takes time, which allows space to cool off from whatever perceived injustice has just occurred.

In my experience, this strategy tends to work best when I don’t know where I’m going. I just start writing, trusting that we’ll come up with an imperfect but workable and maybe even inspiring idea by the time we’re done. So when my son started screaming after I dared finish my snack first, I tossed my crumbs and picked up a notebook:

Times when it is fun to compete
a soccer game
a marble race tournament
a story contest

My son joined me on the couch to see what I was doing and he added his ideas:

an eating contest — Jell-O or hot dogs
playing Yeti in My Spaghetti
playing waffle vs. jaguar
playing Mario Kart
running a half marathon
a science fair
a boxcar derby
a snowball fight
Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me
football game
baseball game
basketball game
hockey game

Satisfied with those entries, we started on a new list:

Times when it wasn’t fun to compete
who can eat breakfast first
who’s down the stairs first
getting ready for pick-up before Mama gets to the classroom
being first out of the classroom
being last out of the classroom
going up the stairs in order
going into the house first

This was one of those magic moments when the pattern seemed clear. During the times when it is fun to compete, everybody agrees to compete: every kid submits a story, every player joins a team, every comedian goes to the Chase Bank Auditorium in downtown Chicago. During the times when competition wasn’t fun, people had not agreed to compete: mom didn’t want to rush through breakfast, dad didn’t want to run on the stairs, teachers wanted kids to leave the classroom without causing bodily harm.

This was a good start, and could help us cut down on the everyday competitions that were driving us crazy. But the list was incomplete. Some people are sad even when the competition is supposed to be fun, like falling down the really long chute or making the Yeti fall into his bowl. And for that, I needed a different strategy.

Let him lose

Looking back over the past few months, I see all the small ways I’ve been letting our Wookie win.

At breakfast, instead of telling my mini Kobayashi that I wasn’t willing to compete, I just reminded him that tea was part of my breakfast and tea would take the whole morning to finish. I instinctively paused on the last stair to avoid meltdowns on the landing. When he tantrummed after losing at Uncle Wiggly, I put Uncle Wiggly on the top shelf of the closet, along with Chutes and Ladders, Jenga, and Gobblet Gobblers.

Losing graciously is a skill, and like all skills, mastery requires practice. I realized I needed to give him that practice by creating more opportunities to lose. I moved all the board games back within reach and added a few new ones to the collection. We’ve practiced how to be a good winner, mixing “yay”s with "Wow, you were so close!” and “That game was really fun!”

I also wanted to teach my son that sometimes we know we will lose even before we start playing, but that there is more to some games than winning or losing. As I prepared to run my first half-marathon earlier this fall, I told him I knew I wouldn’t come in first, or even 100th, or even 1000th, but that I was going to race anyway because I was racing to challenge myself, not other people.

His response? “Maybe if you run again a few times you’ll get better and come in first.”

Clearly, we still had some work to do. And for that, we needed to look at losing in a wider context.

Share my “failure resume”

In How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Hains sits in on friend and psychologist Madeline Levine’s talk about over-parenting. Parents know that their own success came from a “circuitous” path. But kids, Levine claims, tend to view their parents’ successes as straightforward: “They don’t know how you struggled and failed; it’s the biggest secret we keep from our kids. Our kids need to hear the everyday challenges that we have. We ought to share what our trajectory was, particularly when that includes failure.”

A recent episode of Without Fail gave me a useful framework for sharing that trajectory with my son. Nina Jacobson shares the highlights of her “failure resume,” the missed opportunities, professional blunders, and firings that have punctuated her impressive career in film. (You may have heard of some of her earlier work, like, say, The Sixth Sense, The Pirates of the Caribbean and Crazy Rich Asians.)

My failure resume includes kitchen disasters, driving tests, and graduate study, all issues I’m not sure my son was ready to relate to. But I could talk about recent writing failures and how I dealt with them. I started by reading him a rejection letter from an editor, and he sat with me as I typed a quick response thanking her for the feedback. I shared an e-mail from a snackdinner reader pointing out some seriously confusing typos, and let him “help” me make the edits. These failures are hardly life-changing existential crises, but they’re a window into the small setbacks of daily life. I hope that, by failing graciously, I can help him learn to do the same.