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Why Kids Are So Competitive -- and How Parents Can Teach Fairness

Whether it's sports, test scores, or the latest clothes and gadgets, kids these days feel the pressure to come out on top. But they need to learn that life doesn't have to be one big amazing race. Here's what parents can teach instead.

By Cynthia Hanson

Why Kids Are Feeling the Pressure

Being competitive is part of the American way, right up there with having an independent and pioneering spirit. "But kids are more intent than ever about winning at all costs -- in sports, in school, and in their social circles," says Michele Borba, EdD, author of 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know (Jossey-Bass). "Competition is different and more dangerous than it used to be. Worse yet, young children are now being drawn into it, and they really can't cope with the pressure."

What's going on? For starters, kids are soaking up the never-ending reports of athletes cheating their way to victory by taking steroids -- and then lying about it. What's more, shows like American Idol, Survivor, and America's Next Top Model reinforce the idea that being number one is all that matters. "We have a whole generation of kids who fear they're going to get voted off," says Wendy Grolnick, PhD, coauthor of Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids (Prometheus Books).

The flip side of that fear is kids' false hope. "When people appear out of nowhere to achieve national celebrity, kids think, 'I can do that too, and if I don't, then I'm a nobody,'" explains Susan Newman, PhD, author of The Book of No (McGraw-Hill). Reality TV judges press home the message: On the season finale of American Idol last May, Simon Cowell declared, "You've got to hate your opponent." But, as Newman points out, "Kids shouldn't be taught to hate their competitors. They need to learn how to cooperate and support one another because team players are the people who succeed in the real world."

Parents have also become key influences in this high-stakes game. "Moms and dads have always lived vicariously through their children," says Newman, "but now those dreams are fed by images of stardom and celebrity." To that end, parents force kids into advanced classes and onto elite travel teams, and hire tutors and private coaches to ensure their kids' success because being just "okay" isn't enough anymore.

Yet the pressure to compete, whatever its source, can lead to paralyzing stress and can program tweens and teens for self-defeating perfectionism. "Kids may set the bar so high they end up never being satisfied with their performance," Borba explains. "They can also become reluctant to try new things -- an essential part of adolescence -- out of fear they'll make a mistake."

The good news is you can do a lot to help your child handle the heat, win with grace, and rebound from loss. After all, healthy competition, with realistic expectations and an emphasis on striving for excellence, is good for all kids. It educates them about discipline, time management, and goal-setting. Take a look at how parents can bring back the balance -- and teach the right kind of winning attitude.

Competition in School

When Katie, from a Chicago suburb, was 10, she wanted to play the saxophone because she thought it was cool. But a classmate learning the oboe had a different motivation. "The friend's mom picked the less popular instrument so her daughter would stand out from the crowd when applying to college," says Katie's mother, Laura. "The girls were still in elementary school!" Borba isn't surprised: "Building a resume used to be a high school task," she says. "But now even first-graders are being programmed to have an edge."

Some schools are fueling anxiety with Web sites where teachers update grades daily, enabling students and parents to track them. Moms and dads can use these sites to stay informed -- or to push kids relentlessly. And even traditional subject-based competitions like spelling bees and history contests are now part of the spiking pressure -- there are far more contests now, with more kids expected to participate and at younger ages.

A recent phenomenon alarming experts and parents alike is the growing "extended time" trend. "I've had a number of requests recently from parents who want me to make a false diagnosis of ADHD or a learning disability so their child can get additional time on tests or extra tutoring, or be placed in smaller classes," says Ron Zodkevitch, MD, a child psychiatrist and member of Family Circle's Health Advisory Board. The practice became common in 2003, after the College Board announced that it no longer would report whether time accommodations were made for students with disabilities. "Parents are using unethical methods on their child's behalf," observes Borba, "and skewing results for everyone else."

How Kids Are Losing Out

Competition in Social Situations

It's natural for kids to become obsessed with appearance and consumed with self-doubt when puberty hits. And it's also a time when peer pressure escalates. "Although kids have always competed for status, there's more edginess, influenced by the winner-take-all mentality in our society," says Jane Shure, PhD, coauthor of Inside/Outside Self-Discovery Program for the Middle School Years (ToucanEd).

The meanness is also fueled by kids' hyper-connected culture. In a matter of seconds they can score winning points by harassing one another, spreading rumors, and sharing unflattering pictures via cell phones and the Internet. The extreme transparency of online social circles -- sites like MySpace and Facebook display the number of "friends" each user has and let users rank friends -- has ratcheted up social competition.

Kids also exploit today's plethora of consumer goods to gain cachet. While some just want to have items in common with classmates, others are bent on outdoing peers. Advertisers have always played to this, but, says Shure, today's sheer number of products can fuel kids' material status-seeking out of control.

How Kids Are Losing Out

Competition in Sports

In the past decade children's sports have become more intensely organized -- by adults. And many kids are beginning to specialize in a single sport as early as age 6. Why? Often to increase their chances of landing a college scholarship or turning pro. Yet, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, fewer than 1 in 35 male high school basketball players will play college hoops; only 1 in 200 high school baseball players will reach the major league. "Making it to the highest level requires more than just practice," says Fred Engh, author of Why Johnny Hates Sports (Avery). "It takes a highly competitive personality, a love for the sport, and incredible natural talent."

Still, a 2008 survey by the National Alliance for Youth Sports found that 74 percent of parents have seen a coach yell at a child for making a mistake, promoting a do-or-die ethic. "Coaches think success is winning the championship," says Engh. "But what should matter is that kids are learning teamwork, discipline, and sportsmanship."

How Kids Are Losing Out

It's inevitable that your child will have to go head-to-head with others. Sometimes it'll be healthy fun; other occasions may be tough or even painful. But, in the end, knowing how to face competition honestly and with a good attitude can set kids up for a happy, fulfilling life -- the best victory of all.

Steps Parents Can Take to Teach Fairness

Here are some smart steps you can take to tame over-the-top competition and teach fair-mindedness.

Originally published in the October 17, 2008, issue of Family Circle magazine.