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

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

  • Weakened individuality. "Kids have always been ostracized by their peers if they don't conform to some standards of the day," says Shure. Yet too much emphasis on not being a loser may rob a child of the ability to think things through and stand up to peer pressure.
  • Risky behaviors. When kids are pegged as social losers, either by others or by themselves, "there's a chance they'll turn to smoking, drinking, experimenting with drugs, or eating disorders, either to fit in with peers or numb their pain," says Shure.
  • Damaged personalities. Kids who want to join the popular group -- or stay in it -- won't challenge its leader to stop mean behavior and could become bullies themselves. By using materialism to win friends, kids don't learn how to make true pals based on shared values.