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.